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Dozens of Residents Give Input on Proposed Northport Budget

Northport administration and trustees listened as community members expressed opinions on a wide range of subjects

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.

Consolidation
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.

Chris April 11, 2011 at 12:03 PM
As Governor Cuomo stated, reserves are meant to be used for a "rainy day" and it is currently "pouring". The school board never did and never will relate to what is going on financially in the community. We need a 0% increase budget.
East N'ptr April 11, 2011 at 12:40 PM
I hope everyone realizes how we came to have these reserves. It was partly ""ultra-conservative" budgeting and partly having Dr. McDermott and her staff put good practices in place for cost-cutting and savings. As a result, year after year, we have millions left over from the approved budget. Far more than the $3.5 million that they put back into the next year's budget as revenue. Last year the underspending/overbudgeting amounted to $10mil. Updated budget reports for this year show that we may have as much as $14-$15 million leftover after the 2010-2011 school year. The "ultra-conservative" budgeting needs to stop and then we can easily achieve a "0" increase. This is a very simple first step to getting us some tax relief.
Krista B. April 11, 2011 at 01:25 PM
I believe the proposed number to be used from reserves for 11/12 budget is $ 5.75 million, not $3.5. Did something change?
East N'ptr April 11, 2011 at 04:03 PM
You are correct Krista, they are using $3.5m from appropriated reserves and $2.25m from the TRS reserve as revenue towards the '11/12 budget. But typically the appropriated fund balance is about $3.5m and this is the amount that the Ass't Superintendent for Business said they include in the budget (by overestimating expenditures) so that it can be carried over to reduce the following year's tax levy. I think there is too much "overestimating", and this is evident by the amount of money that's left over at the end of each year. Simply put, I am saying that if we do less "overestimating", we can still maintain reserve funds, have little to no tax increase and we will get all the programs and equipment that are in the current budget. That's not to say that I don't think that the spending shouldn't be cut back a bit more, but it's a start that I think just about everyone can be happy with.
Debbie Sullivan April 12, 2011 at 03:12 AM
Krista B and East N'ptr, thanks for posting. Krista, you are quite correct -- the total reserves earmarked for 2011-2012 are $5.75 million, or 26%, of the $22,127,602 being held in reserves. I was referring only to the designated unappropriated balance of $3.5 million that gets returned to taxpayers each year. The rest of the reserves being used are as follows: ERS Reserve: $1.75 million; Worker's Comp: $400,000; Unemployment Insurance Reserve: $100,000
Krista B. April 12, 2011 at 02:07 PM
Thanks Debbie. My comment was more directed at East N'ptr's statement: "As a result, year after year, we have millions left over from the approved budget. Far more than the $3.5 million that they put back into the next year's budget as revenue." In fact, the proposed budget is calling for $5.75 to be put back in the budget as revenue. I know there has been a lot of concern regarding the $22M in total reserves the district has built. As a percent of the total proposed budget - the total reserves is about 15%. I wonder how that compares to other school districts? I think that would be a good story to report on - to help give readers perspective, don't you think? I'm fairly certain that is public information that can be obtained by way of NYSEDhttp://www.p12.nysed.gov/mgtserv/propertytax/home.html. Also think it would be helpful to explain the differences between the different reserves. I'm sure the Assistant Superintendent of Business could help with that. IMO - I don't believe our reserves are out of line at all - and that is without consideration for the uncertainty of outcomes (LIPA, Teachers Contract Unsettled, NYS Tax Cap) our district is facing. 1.98% or a symbolic 0%...either way- thougher times await us.
justsayin4u April 12, 2011 at 02:52 PM
It was stated at the last meeting that the district is in the 80th percentile (suffolk county) and 75th percentile (island wide) in terms of their reserve balances as of june 30th 2010.
Concerned Citizen April 12, 2011 at 02:54 PM
Don't get caught up on appropriated fund balance. It is a cushion in the budget that is equaled on the revenue side. It is common in fund accounting. It would make people feel better if it were a seperate line item, but you can pretty much figure out where the money is when you look at the actual vs. budgeted expenditures from prior years. But here is a hint: look at instructional salaries. I did not think you can have a TRS reserve since the liabilty is undetermined until the employer contribution is indicated by the NYS Comptroller. But what do I know?
Concerned Citizen April 12, 2011 at 03:02 PM
When you raise your apporpriated reserve or "fund balance", you are drawing down on your undesignated fund balance. How else do you think our Board has a tax rate that is lower than the budget "expense" increase when at the same time we are losing financial aid. If your $5.75 number is accurate, they are taking the money from undesignated fund balance ($2.25 million) to buy down the tax rate.
East N'ptr April 12, 2011 at 03:13 PM
I'm not sure you're understanding my point Krista. I already understand about the various uses and restrictions for the various reserve funds. In fact, I think the use of the funds in the proposed budget is appropriate and I'm not asking for any more reserve funds to be used right now. My point is that now is not the time to over budget and overtax our community for the sake of bulking up reserve funds, at least not at the levels we've seen over the past couple of years. Take a look at the budget report below, refer to Page 3 of 3 in the second report: http://www.boarddocs.com/ny/nens/Board.nsf/files/8ECUNK/$file/10.01+MR&BSR+02_28_11.pdf The very last line in the last column shows that there could be as much as $14.5 million left over as a surplus after this school year is complete. I've grown weary of being told that the budget is "so tight", "there's no money" and a 2% tax hike isn't "that bad" or worse, threats of layoffs, cuts to student programs and services (like last year) when we have $10-$15mil surpluses each year! What's so bad about asking that more of those surpluses are returned to the taxpayers? I'm not saying this is the only solution here, but it's a good start. There's still a ton of fat in that budget, but that's a whole other subject.
East N'ptr April 12, 2011 at 03:29 PM
Sorry, I incorrectly said the TRS reserve fund, when I meant to say "Employee Retirement" reserve fund. Those funds cannot be used towards Teachers Retirement expenditures.
justsayin4u April 12, 2011 at 03:33 PM
the district should consider reducing the current budget, and thus have a reduction in the school property tax for the following reasons: high level of reserves cronic underspending of budget (this year running about $15M, Last year, $10M, 2009-$6M, average of 4-5 yrs prior of $4M) spending has been flat at $137 m for past 2 years and it looks like the same for this year. failure to do zero-based budgeting failure to present overall tech plan to community (looking to spend at least $9M over the next few years ) now is NOT the time to spend more money on new initiatives time to really "buckle down" before LIPA hits not when it hits..Buckle down does not mean to create reserves but to evaluate every cost in terms of necessity and their contractual committments. Hoarding is not management Forget 0%, increase last year actual spending of $137M by 5%. That should be enough to cover rise in costs and give the taxpayers a reduction.
Concerned Citizen April 13, 2011 at 02:32 AM
What is the Employee Retirement Reserve Fund? What recorded liability is there to allow such a reserve? Are you talking about the Employee Benefits Reserve?
East N'ptr April 13, 2011 at 12:30 PM
@Concerned Citizen, the Board created this reserve fund last year and put $4.4 million into it, and is now transferring $1.75 mil back to reduce the tax levy for '11-12. It is a separate fund from the Employee Benefits fund but it can only be used for non-teaching retirement fund contributions. Here's a link to all of the reserve funds info: http://web.northport.k12.ny.us/files/filesystem/District%20Reserve%20Funds%20and%20Tax%20Levy.pdf
paul caplan April 13, 2011 at 12:45 PM
I find it somewhat ironic that the NYS Comptroller's office issued a warning to the Patch-Medford school district that they were dipping into their reserve funds too much. This is after our new Governor stated that reserve funds are to be used to offset the reductions in school aid. Here is a school district doing what the Governor said needs to be done and is now being warned for those very actions.
justsayin4u April 13, 2011 at 01:31 PM
@paul caplan that is exactly the point. school districts use reserves to manage instead of using real management skills to evaluate expenditures. why? it is easier to overtax and hoard. and don't forget about the conflict of interest management has when making these hard decisions. boards don't have the skills and/or the guts to challenge administration either. so it takes the governor to do so. when districts use up their reserves then they will be at the point when hard decisions will need to be made. sad state isn't it, when these high-priced individuals push off making hard decisions.
Anna April 13, 2011 at 02:34 PM
what's sad is that the patch has been commandeered by a few alias posters who weren't getting a platform in their own forum and have taken their crusade of demeaning, degrading and discounting ANY good done by our district to this board.
East N'ptr April 13, 2011 at 03:51 PM
Dear Anna, You yourself have also used the patch to give your opinions on the high salaries that our teachers and library employees receive. I don't think I saw any nice words from you about the good work that these people do. So why the double-standard? Perhaps there are some in the community who feel the Board should stand up more for taxpayers. Maybe they have information that you don't as the basis of this opinion. So that precludes anyone else from being able to voice a different point of view and provide information that supports their views? I respect your right to have a different viewpoint, but I find your post just as "demeaning, degrading and discounting" as the other alias posters you refer to. Let's stop the name-calling and attempts at discrediting the people who don't share your point of view.

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