From the cost of technology spending to the use of reserve funds, members of the Northport and East Northport community waited in some cases for hours to share their thoughts about the proposed 2011-12 budget at the April 6 Board of Ed meeting. The proposed $151,178,758.00 budget calls for a 1.98% tax rate increase.
But before residents were invited to the microphone, Superintendent Marylou McDermott clarified the district’s stance on class size at the high school. Seeking to address what she felt was a misunderstanding on the part of some community members with regard to , McDermott said her goal was to cap the size of Regents classes at the high school to 23 students, which would not be a weighted number. The current number is 29 weighted students. “Weighting” of special education students essentially reduces class size to allow for students’ needs.
McDermott said her goal was to achieve equity in the classroom for both students and teachers, and that she felt a student shouldn’t be reduced to a number. Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Terry Bouton explained that a number of years ago, when electives were capped at 20 weighted students for safety reasons, some classes came in at 20.5 students. At the time, the union grieved it. “Sometimes,” Bouton said, “the weighting factor doesn’t do what it was intended to do.”
Board President Steve Waldenburg added that the issue of weighting should be a policy issue rather than a contractual one. Removing weighting from the contract -- one of the give backs that the district has proposed to the United Teachers of Northport -- was part of Gross’s presentation to the community.
With that in mind, Board Vice President Karen Wills asked Trustee Gannon to mock up a policy regarding the weighting of students in elective classes.
McDermott also said that the elimination of compensation for AM-PM musical rehearsals and zero period rehearsals– another giveback proposal which had caused confusion – was based on a desire to look at scheduling issues, not an elimination of the program itself.
The Tax Rate, Contingency, and Getting to Zero
Several community members said they were disappointed that the administration had proposed a 1.98% tax rate given the fact that $22 million is being held in various reserves. Resident Joe Sabia urged the district to “dig deep” to cut costs and use some reserves so that community members could see a 0% increase. Then, he said, when the economy is better in the future, taxpayers could be asked to pay a bit more.
Resident Gene Levy agreed, saying he too was hoping for a zero percent increase. “Everybody’s got to give, including teachers.” However, he was opposed to the use of reserves. “Reserves wouldn’t change the amount you’re spending. Find a way to do it for less.”
Reiterating the issues he raised in a March 14 letter to the Board, United Taxpayers of Northport-East Northport President Armand D’Accordo expressed concern that a build-up of reserves was “being used to avoid examining ways to reduce the rate at which district expenditures are growing.”
Kristin Gavin asked what the difference would be between the proposed 1.98% increase and a contingency budget. Assistant Superintendent for Business Kathleen Molander explained that the worst case scenario, in which no reserve funds were used, would result in a 2.867% increase.
Dr. Nina Dorata, another member of UTN-EN, asked what the number would be if the administration dipped into the reserves.
Waldenburg said he didn’t know where the Board stood on use of reserve funds, but that it would be discussed at the April 13 Board meeting when trustees will finalize the budget.
Resident Joseph Stewart asked if a zero percent increase would be possible if the proposed budget were voted down by taxpayers. Waldenburg said that would be a topic for the April 13 roundtable discussion as well.
Lisa Dimond questioned whether the timing was right to use reserves. “It’s going to get worse before it gets better,” she said, asking rhetorically whether an emergency presently exists that would require the district to tap funds.
Former trustee Rob Ingraham cautioned against use of reserves as well. Each reserve has a specific purpose, Ingraham said, adding that they’re the reason why the district isn’t looking at making cuts to staff, music, and sports.
Tammie Topel, President-Elect of SEPTA, asked what the effect of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposed tax cap would be on the budget next year. “We think we have struck the correct balance with regard to reserves to be solvent in the future,” McDermott replied.
Expenditures vs Revenues
Stewart also questioned why the proposed 2011-2012 budget is $151 million given the fact that total spending for 2010-2011 was only $137 million -- $10 million less than the $147 million that voters had approved.
McDermott said that while the district has deliberately tried to cut costs, revenues have to be considered as well. Molander added that each year the district has to generate $3.5 million for the designated fund balance, either by underspending or generating revenues, so that the money can be returned to the taxpayer.
“We should find a way to cut without going to reserves,” Stewart said. He expressed concern about , and the effect it would have on the Northport-East Northport school district, adding that the district should have used the 2010-2011 budget number of $147 million.
Carl Litt asked about the cost implications for lowering the cap on class size. Bouton said although the course schedules haven’t been completed yet, staff may increase by only 1.0 FTE at the high school due to more efficient scheduling.
George McWiggin asked where the district stood on consolidation, which had been suggested in January when the .
Waldenburg said the district tries to share common services wherever possible through BOCES. With regard to cutting transportation expenses, the district is required by the state to provide a seat for every child, regardless of whether the seat is actually used – which can lead to empty buses.
McWiggin suggested that Harborfields might be a good district with whom to explore possible consolidation, but Wills said they’re facing program cuts and a spending increase of 3.5%-5.5%.
Technology and Teaching
Tom Papell questioned the need for increased spending on technology. “A SMART Board isn’t going to make a bad teacher a good teacher. It begins and ends with the teacher.” He suggested that money be spent instead on a mentoring program for teachers.
Assistant Superintendent for Instruction and Administration Matthew Nelson said the district isn’t breaking new ground with the use of SMART Boards, which are widely in use by other districts. He cited a recent study in which 93% of teachers surveyed said that the Boards make them more efficient as teachers.
Bouton said the district has had a program in place for years in which new teachers are paired with a veteran to guide them through the first and second year of teaching. If a problem is perceived, Bouton said the Teacher Improvement Plan provides additional assistance through professional development courses, or whatever mechanism is needed to help that particular teacher.
Sheila Whitlow, who wrote a regarding the March 28 Board meeting, requested that the Board consider scaling back new spending on technology as well as other areas such as improvements to the security systems. “If you’re going to ask everyone to sacrifice, I think you have to look at this, too.”
In response to a question asked by Joe Stewart, Nelson said that teachers were not surveyed anonymously about the district’s plan to provide Netbooks to staff members. The cost for the Netbooks, according to Nelson, is $175,000 for the first year, and $115,000 each for the following three years.
Another resident, Don Longo, expressed frustration about the whole budgeting process. “It’s not about the kids. It’s about bickering and budgets.” He stressed the need for better communication between parents and some of the teachers. “Before we invest in SMART Boards, I hope teachers can use phones.”
Dorata requested to see the district’s overall technology plan including all costs, and asked Nelson how he planned to measure student improvement
Nelson said the district takes benchmarks and tracks progress through assessments. “We do make plans that are best practices,” he said. A PDF of the district’s three-year technology plan is attached to this article.
A special meeting to finalize the budget will take place on Wednesday, April 13 at 7:30 PM in the large cafeteria.