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Elwood Residents React to Possible Budget Cuts

The message from parents to the administration and Board of Ed is loud and clear: ind a way to keep athletics, full day kindergarten, music, and after-school activities

“The Board and I are not advocating for a contingency budget.”

That’s the message Superintendent Peter Scordo sought to convey  to the hundreds of residents in the audience who turned out to speak at the March 10 Board of Education meeting passionately, and at times, angrily, about the proposed cuts to the 2011-2012 budget. A PDF copy of the budget review and possible reductions is attached to this article.

Scordo went on to detail how and why the administration arrived at those reductions supporting a $52,089,217 budget which would mean a 3.75% tax levy for district residents.

“We know what the high point is,” he said, referring to the $55,633,473 draft budget which would keep programs relatively unchanged while asking taxpayers to shoulder a 13.33% tax increase. “Now we need to look at the lows.”

Scordo then took those lows even further, presenting an incredibly bleak picture for the next three years if Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposed 2% tax cap on property taxes were to be approved. Even if Elwood voters support the drastic budget cuts this year, another $2.8 million would need to be cut in 2012-13.  Those cuts would grow to $5 million in 2013-14 and $7 million in 2014-15.

The Big Picture
Scordo gave a detailed, line-by-line look at the cuts and their effect on closing the $3,544,256 budget gap.  At the central office and district-wide levels, $316,300 would be saved in part by eliminating one custodian, one secretary, some clerical and custodial OT, some co-curricular expenses, field trips, and one technology curriculum specialist. 

Here’s a look at how each individual school would be affected:

Full day kindergarten would be reduced to half day, no lunch, resulting in the layoffs of four full time teachers. Lisa Abrams, a mother of eight, asked when parents would be notified if such a change were to occur. Scordo said that he would ask the board for direction at the next budget meeting on the March 17 and parents who had already registered would receive a letter. If there is no direction, Scordo said parents would get a letter anyway informing them of the ongoing situation.

Other reductions in the library, art, music, and physical education areas at Harley would decrease staff by 1.8

Total savings at Harley Avenue Primary: $418,929. Total staff reductions at Harley:  5.8

Grade 5 would be the most affected, with teaching staff reduced by two. Class size would increase from 24.6 to 28 and 28 to 31.

Music Performance would also be impacted, with a staff reduction of 1.6 resulting in a savings of $104,000. Again, Library, Art, Music and PE would also see reductions resulting in a savings of nearly $80,000.  

Total savings at James H. Boyd: $314,468.  Total staff reductions at Boyd: 4.8

Grade 6 would be reduced from 9 sections to 7 sections, with class size increasing from 25 to 28. The curriculum would basically remain the same because of the mandated core classes that students must take.

Grade 7 would see sections reduced from 9 to 7, with class size increasing from 25.5 to 32. Technology would be most affected, decreasing from 40 weeks to a 20 week split between tech and MST (Math Science Technology).

Grade 8 would also see the number of sections reduced from 9 to 7, with class size increasing from 25 to 32.5.  Twenty weeks of Modern Issues would replace the previous 20 week split between Modern Issues and Math Science Technology.

Music (Performance) would be cut, with a staff reduction of 2.4 teachers and a savings of $156,000.  The athletic program would be eliminated, saving another $153,167. A PDF copy of the middle school course presentation is attached to this article.

Total savings at Elwood Middle School: $803,921  Total staff reductions at Elwood Middle: 9.9

Staff would be reduced by 10.3 across the board including the elimination of Music Performance .and Science Research.  Several classes, including AP Physics, AP Chemistry and Forensics, would have 30 or more students/class, although Principal Vincent Mulieri said English was purposely spared for spatial reasons. For example, English 11 Honors would have had 40 students in the class but was split into two, with Mulieri noting, “I don’t have a classroom that will hold 40 students.” 

JV and Varsity sports would be cut, saving another $641,548. Click here to see the high school  course presentation.

Total savings at John Glenn High School: $1,317,843  Total staff reductions at John Glenn: 10.3

Scordo noted that to save the athletic program, another 4 teaching positions would have had to be cut. While stressing the importance of sports, Scordo said, “I thought core curriculum was more important.”

Scordo added that he was appreciative of the big turnout, noting that last year’s budget was initially defeated due to poor attendance before the vote. “We need input. Your voice will be heard.”

Reaction from the Board Trustee Andrew Kaplan asked about a “pay-to-play” policy and wanted to know if it would be legally permissible for community members to make a contribution to the school in support of athletics. Scordo confirmed that he had checked with legal counsel and was told that it’s allowed but complicated. The donation would go to the general fund but he added the money would have to be fairly and equitably divided between male and female sports at the direction of the Board.

Trustee Dan Ciccone said he always understood “pay-to-play” to mean that athletes would pay a fee to participate, but Ronald Friedman, Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources confirmed that that is not allowed in New York State.

In response to the overall budget, Kaplan noted that if the governor’s cap were in effect this year, pension requirements alone would take up the 2%, and said a way had to be found to address the bigger issues of pensions and salary increases. Saying “we have to start somewhere,” Kaplan suggested that workers agree to a salary freeze. “I ask every district employee here to do the math. It’s time to stop the bleeding.” Later in the meeting he added that  his suggestion wasn’t meant as a shot at teachers. “I’m trying to save teachers. I’m trying to save co-curricular. I’m trying to save Elwood.”

Scordo noted that the administration had already reached out to more than 30 individuals whose jobs would be impacted if the contingency budget were to take effect.

Ciccone disagreed with Kaplan’s suggestion of a hard freeze. “We need to be respectful of these people because they’re taking the same hits we are.” He noted that adding music and athletics back into the budget would mean a taxy levy around 7% -- which, he said, was around the number that voters had initially rejected last May.

He expressed concern about going back to the community with a 7% levy but expressed his own personal feelings about cutting programs. “I believe athletics and music are the character and soul of this community and its students. I would never support a budget that cuts out character and soul. I will not support the budget without athletics and music.”

Board VP Joseph Fusaro noted that the board has very little control over the budget due to mandated costs such as pensions, and that this is a multi-year problem. He urged residents to contact their local legislators. “The way I see it – either they need to fix the problems or they need to give the local Boards the power to fix the problems.”

Trustee Patricia Matos agreed with Dan Ciccone that athletics is important. “We find ourselves pinned between athletics, curriculum, and the arts.”

Public Reaction
Resident Christine Dixon brought up the issue of reserves, asking if it would be possible to build into the budget a reserve for future years. Scordo said that a certain amount of reserves is being applied to maintain the 13.33% budget and noted that other districts with very large reserves are “artificially reducing” the tax rate for their communities. He noted that Elwood’s reserves are about 3% of the budget.

Student athlete Nick Wagner spoke of the dedication of the coaches, and gave a heartfelt plea to the board and administration to save the athletic programs.  “Being a student athlete at John Glenn, we represent our community and it means so much to us all.”

Other community members took issue with the administration’s concern that the community wouldn’t approve a higher tax levy based on last year’s budget vote.  One audience member asked for respect. “You’re bitching about the state taking control away from the district but don’t take it away from us.” 

Another audience member noted that he hadn’t heard administrative salaries discussed. Scordo said that those conversations were also taking place.

Julie Badlato, president of the PTA, told Board members that she had sent out an email to parents and residents urging them to reach out to the trustees to express their opinions. She praised the teachers who have previously taken a praise freeze, adding “I applaud Mr. Scordo for approving a great salary for himself.” She went on to characterize the district’s efforts to explore consolidation an “embarrassment” for its lack of a response by other districts and noted that she had yet to hear back on her Jan. 7, 2011 FOIL (Freedom of Information Law) requests concerning the consolidation issue.

Scordo asked Friedman to look into the status of the FOIL request.

Kaplan noted that he didn’t see Badlato’s email to community members and has not received any emails from the public asking him to approve the budget. However, he has received a “handful” of messages from people saying they can’t afford the budget.

Ciccone weighed in with his support of the administration, and with Scordo in particular. “The value of great leadership is beyond any value that you can perceive from the outside.” He praised Scordo, noting that every dollar of his salary over Governor Cuomo’s proposed $179,000 limit on superintendents’ salaries is “well worth it.” He noted that if all 121 superintendents on Long Island were eliminated, school spending would go down one quarter of one percent.

Fusaro said he hadn’t received any emails from the public either. He endorsed Scordo as well, and said that the small dollar amount that Scordo gets is like “spitting into the ocean. Let’s not take our eye off the ball.”

Matos said she has received emails from the public, and thanked Badlato for her efforts.

Another resident noted the pro-athletic crowd in the auditorium, and asked about the district’s demographics with regard to people without children in public schools. Ciccone mentioned a study done a few years ago which showed that about 60% of the households in Elwood are childless.

Future Meetings: As noted, the next Board of Education meeting is scheduled for Thursday, March 17 at 7:30 p.m.  There will also be a Joint Legislative Breakfast with Harborfields at Oldfield Middle School on Saturday, March 26 at 8:15 AM which is open to the public. At 11:30 a.m. the fourth budget workshop will take place in the library.

Debbie Sullivan March 17, 2011 at 10:42 AM
With regard to the suggestion that Elwood's teachers take a salary freeze, Trustee Dan Ciccone also pointed out that something as sensitive as personal income shouldn't be discussed in public. It should be negotiated in private, which is a requirement of the Taylor Law.
julie badlato March 17, 2011 at 08:43 PM
Negotiations are private. Salaries paid for with taxpayer dollars are public.
julie badlato March 17, 2011 at 09:56 PM
If a $300,oo0+ salary and benefits package is like "spitting into the ocean," please throw me a spitball! If not to me, how about to the teaching assistants who have been without a contract for 5+ years?
Jerry Hannon March 28, 2011 at 02:18 AM
For most school districts on LI, the salary & benefits for a superintendent would be between 1/4 of 1% to 1/2 of 1% (or, .0025 to .0050) of the district's budget. On the other hand, the salaries & benefits for the teachers of each district would typically be between 60% to 70% (or, .6000 to .7000) of the district's budget. In the language of financial analysis, there is a huge difference in materiality between the 2 categories of expense, and those who focus upon minutia have lost sight of the biggest effect; or perhaps they are hoping that everyone else will lose sight of differences in materiality. It is very much like what Gov.Cuomo, & some of his henchmen in the Legislature have been doing when they shriek & squawk about how many superintendents are paid more than the governor. Albany keeps hoping we won't pay attention to the problems which Albany itself has caused, such as the pensions excesses & mandated payments for shortfalls, the unfunded & under-funded mandates to districts, and the restrictions on free (but fair) local personnel management. Similarly, some hyper-advocates for teachers unions hope to get us to take our eyes off the big & very material ball by complaining, just like Cuomo (though for different reasons) about compensation packages for superintendents. If you truly want to rein in costs for administrators (including superintendents), then consolidate districts on a county-wide basis, or even on a town-wide basis. Everything else is bupkis.

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