School Budget Forecast: Class Size, Taxes Up; Staff Size Down

by Melany Gray

(February 26, 2009) “This is not business as usual,” Dr. Fried emphasized to the more than one hundred people who attended the school board meeting on February 24, which he characterized as a “budget forecast.”

In light of the “exceptional financial concerns” in this community and throughout the country, Dr. Fried said it was important to share his forecast and get input from various stakeholders before presenting budget numbers.

The few numbers presented were grim: the preliminary forecast calls for cutting up to fifty employees and still results in a likely tax increase of nearly 7%. Class sizes would rise and extra-curriculars, professional development and other expenses would be cut.

Dr. Fried feels that, despite challenges, the scenario forecast would maintain the “essence” of the Mamaroneck school culture and protect children.

Expenditure Concerns

Among the expenditure concerns described by Assistant Superintendent for Business Operations Meryl Rubinstein were salaries and benefits from agreements negotiated with the school district’s five bargaining units, increased utilities costs, and the fact that tax certioraris are up and will exceed reserves.

In addition, Governor David Paterson’s proposed 2009-2010 budget includes new mandates and new tax burdens for school districts, such as costs for special education preschool, special education summer school and a new MTA salary tax. Board member Robin Nichinsky explained that these new mandates would add more than $600,000 to the school budget.

Revenue Concerns

The school district is expecting state aid to be nearly a million dollars less than that received last year. This includes approximately $700,000 less in aid currently slated in the Governor’s proposed budget. In addition, the district does not expect to receive the nearly $250,000 in additional aid secured last year by Assemblyman George Latimer to offset last year’s cuts in aid. Lower interest rates, a reduced fund balance, and a decrease in sales tax revenues will also negatively increase revenues.

Although the district will receive some money from the federal stimulus package, it is not yet clear exactly what will be received or when, although Dr. Fried expects that at least some portion of the stimulus funds will be received in time to impact the budget.

The stimulus funds will be received over two years and some, like those earmarked for providing educational services for needy children (Title IA funds) or disabled children (IDEA funds), will be paid at a designated amount determined by the federal government. These funds will come to the district in the form of grants and so technically will not come into the budget as revenues, although they will reduce necessary expenditures. Other stabilization funds will be paid to the state to allocate as it sees fit, and it is not clear what amount Mamaroneck will receive.

Developing a Framework for the Budget

In a typical year, Dr. Fried explained, central staff works with building administrators to develop a “requested budget,” making appropriate adjustments for class size and enrollment data and then making other additions for equipment, maintenance and other expenditures. If that process were followed and additional staff were hired to maintain the board’s class size guidelines, the requested budget for next year would be more than $128 million, up 9.7% from the 2008-2009 budget of approximately $116.9 million.

BUDGET NUMBERS
2008-2009 final budget
$116,923,297
 
Requested budget
$128,308,168
9.7% inrcease
Preliminary budget
(at contingency level)
$122,412, 794
4.7% increase
Potential reductions
   

Realizing that the community cannot bear such an increase, Dr. Fried explored what things would look like if the budget were proposed at the level of a contingency budget. A contingency budget is the budget imposed under New York law if a school district‘s proposed budget is voted down twice. State law requires that the contingency budget be the lesser of 120% of the CPI, or 4% above the prior year’s budget (with certain adjustments for items like tax certioraris, debt service and projected growth). Under this formula, a contingency budget for 2009-2010 would be approximately $122.4 million, a 4.7% increase over last year’s budget.

Because of the expected losses in revenues, however, funding a 4.7% contingency-level budget increase could require a tax increase of nearly 7%. Furthermore, such a budget would require cuts of some $5.9 million from the “requested” budget, resulting in staff reductions and increased class size.

Superintendent’s Framework for Reductions

In determining what to cut, Dr. Fried reiterated, “children come first.” He created a framework that attempts to apply consistent concepts throughout the district, seeking to maintain the culture of the school district by preserving programs. Dr. Fried explained that he is “opposed to dismantling entire programs” that the community values, preferring to reduce rather than eliminate. He emphasized that efforts would be made to maximize teacher contact time with children.

With this framework in mind, Dr. Fried and central staff examined every budget line.

Although he did not describe proposed reductions specifically or in terms of dollars, Dr. Fried first looked to non-instructional areas such as operations and maintenance, equipment and supplies. Reductions related to instruction were also considered, including reductions in expenditures for technology, professional development, supplies and extra-curricular activities. However, Dr. Fried explained, in a budget where 77% of expenditures are related to staffing, the shortfall cannot be made up without staffing cuts.

Potential Staffing Reductions and Increased Class Size

Dr. Fried’s forecast includes the potential reduction of fifty positions. Dr. Fried noted that some of these reductions might be accomplished by retirements and resignations. Note that the term “teaching position” as used below includes specialists such as clinicians and speech and language therapists, not just classroom teachers.

  • Non-Instructional Staffing: Two custodial and two clerical positions would be eliminated.

  • Administration: One to two administrators would be eliminated. Dr. Fried explained that he was considering eliminating one administrator at the building level as well as an assistant superintendent from central staff. He did not elaborate, but Hommocks Assistant Principal Larry Keane has announced his retirement at the end of June, and Pete Scordo completes his contract as interim assistant superintendent for personnel at the end of the school year as well.

  • Elementary Schools: Fifteen elementary teaching positions would be cut. This includes four positions that would have been added under the “requested” budget, so the change from the current budget would be a decrease of eleven positions. This would be accomplished by increasing the school board’s class size guidelines by two students. Dr. Fried briefly reviewed research suggesting that this increase in class size would be unlikely to have any academic impact.

  • Hommocks Middle School: Six teaching positions would be eliminated and average class size would increase by three students. The team structure would be preserved, however. Annie Ward, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, explained that Hommocks administrators are considering several possible scenarios. One would involve a “half team” system. Three of the four teams would look much the same as they do now, but on the fourth team, teachers might teach two sections of seventh grade and two of eighth. Because the incoming sixth grade is a big class, there would be no change in the team structure for that grade.

  • Mamaroneck High School: Ten teaching positions would be eliminated and there would be a small class size increase in specific areas. The number of AP and honors courses would not be decreased, but some sections could be eliminated.

  • Additional Instructional Staffing: Eight teaching assistant positions would be eliminated, as would five teacher aides.

Mr. Scordo explained that state law provides very strict guidelines for how staff reductions may be made. When hired, each teacher is placed on a seniority list in a specific tenure area, such as elementary teacher, science teacher, etc. They move up the list over time, and can move down as well (for example, unpaid leave results in a loss of seniority).

Planned Meetings with Bargaining Units

Dr. Fried noted that the district contracts with its five bargaining units, which were just finalized in the past year, “were settled in different economic times” and were competitive with other area school districts. He has scheduled meetings with the heads of all five units to discuss the potential staffing reductions and see what they can do “to pitch in at this difficult time.” Central staff is considering a salary freeze.

In response to community questions, Dr. Fried explained that the average cost of a teacher in the district is $111,000, which includes expenditures for salaries and benefits. He further explained that the teachers’ contract provided for a general increase of 3.8% in salaries per year, with additional step increases of 3 to 4%. Several community members questioned the appropriateness of 7% increases during dire economic times, especially where up to fifty people will be let go, class size will increase, and the community will be asked to pay a 7% increase in property taxes.

Dr. Fried noted that contracts could be reopened if the district and union both agreed to do so. Unions could make any concessions that they chose, so long as they did not violate state law. For example, teachers could not give up their due process rights or tenure, nor could they change seniority rules or pension obligations, as all those areas are governed by state law. Salary, step increases, and the level of health benefits, however, could be renegotiated.

Mamaroneck Teachers' Association Response

Reached for comment after the meeting, Ann Borselino, president of the
Mamaroneck Teachers’ Association, said that her union “is very disappointed that the community chose to target teacher salaries as the sole cause of the increase in the proposed budget for 2009-2010.” She noted that “teachers agree that a 7% increase is steep during these times, but teacher salaries are not the only reason for such an increase.”

Although numerous other issues were addressed at the meeting and numerous causes for the current budget forecast were discussed at some length, many questions from the community did focus on teacher salaries and benefits.

Rejecting the suggestion that Dr. Fried’s scenario would not negatively impact teachers who maintained their jobs, Ms. Borselino noted that “class sizes will increase, and therefore teachers’ workloads will increase as well. To ask us to take on additional responsibilities and shoulder a pay cut as well is going too far.”

The MTA “is more than willing to work with the administration to cut any fat out of the budget,” Ms. Borselino continued, but she rejected the implication that “the only way the budget could be trimmed would be to re-open our contract to cut costs. At this stage we are unwilling to do so without seeing a line item budget. “

Other Next Steps

Dr. Fried emphasized that the plan outlined is “not the final word, not the bottom line – it’s just a forecast.” Both Dr. Fried and Linnet Tse, president of the school board, invited suggestions and comments from the various stakeholders, including parents, community members and faculty and staff. Comments can be e-mailed to board@mamkschools.org or pfried@mamkschools.org.

Dr. Fried will present his recommended budget to the board and the community at the school board meeting on Tuesday, March 17 at 7:30 pm.


Melany Gray is co-president of the Mamaroneck High School PTSA.

LMC-TV will re-air the February 24 meeting on channel 77 (Cablevision) and channel 35 (Verizon) on Friday, February 27 at 9 am and Saturday, February 28 at 9 am.