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Why Vote Yes for the School Budget

If you have followed the school budget process for 2010-11, you won’t be surprised that I have an opinion.  You have seen me speak, write, critique, chastise, laud and praise.  This was an unprecedented process for the community, a true soul-searching to come up with a solution to a daunting task.  The school administration and board had to close an almost $3.5mm gap created by uncontrollable increases   without significantly hurting the students.

As someone who has dug through the line items, presented on the big picture, organized with the citizenship, met with our board and testified before our state legislators, I think I’m in a fair position to hand out a grade.

But that will have to wait….

No one has ever said, “I hope I can pay more this year in taxes!” We all would like a decrease, especially when the consumer price index (CPI) is so close to 0 and we all know someone who has lost a job or gone without an increase for the past two years.  It’s too bad that during the good times (some short 3 year ago) we never considered that things might turn bad.  But here we are: our contractual obligations have bitten us in the rear, pension funds have lost 30% requiring taxpayers to make up the difference and health care costs continue to sky-rocket.

But you’ve heard this all before.  You think it’s an excuse and there’s still waste in the system.  Well there is waste, but not that much.   The system will find a few thousand more, and perhaps they won’t fill a contingency position, saving a salary or two. But for the most part, we’re down to brass tacks. Savings will be found next year and they won’t be spent. They’ll, go back into the budget for 2012 as excess from the current year, so there is still an opportunity to save beyond the current budget.

I watched closely the give and take, the questioning on what more could be done and I feel we have started a real turnaround.  Fiscal responsibility is now clearly on the mind of our administration.  We have hired a new superintendant who understands that preserving quality with fiscal restraint is of the utmost importance to the community.  Strengthening our system by embracing long range planning in light of the upcoming contract negotiations will pay huge dividends.

Some say it still is not enough, perhaps, but  how much more cutting should we do?  Is almost 100 positions in 2 years not enough?  Is cutting 9 athletic teams not enough?  Is increasing class sizes in some cases over the maximum board guideline not enough?  Should more arts and music activities be cut?  More clubs cut?  More professional development cut?

Many have answered yes: more cuts should be made, we are all sacrificing so why shouldn’t there be more sacrifice in the schools.  The simple answer is “The Children.”, It’s not just our job but our duty to protect them, and we need to give them all we can.  We must maintain continuity and not go through fits and stops in the education process.  There are responsible ways to make adjustments and simply pulling the legs out from under our children serves no one.

This is why I am saying: “Now is NOT the time to say no.” The system needs an overhaul, but not mid-stream.  All the parties need to come to the table and examine what will be done for the long haul.  This budget is a band-aid and surgery is required.    Let’s not turn a bleed into a hemorrhage.

So how did I grade:

(B-) for being a little late to the game
(A+) for transparency and collaboration
(A) for dedication and thoughtfulness

All and all, a solid A.  I hope you join me in voting YES for the budget on May 18th.

Jonathan Sacks
Mamaroneck, NY

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16 comments to Why Vote Yes for the School Budget

  • Anon E Mous

    The tooth fairy died:

    An incredible acceptance “the best of the worst” said one writer about the school budget. Might “the worst of the best” be better? :-)

    Our current Superintendent retired after five years. Took a position in NJ paying 20% less than here. Oh and the pension. Oh doesn’t have our Districts cost of living next year, but he didn’t live in the District, and supposedly isn’t moving to NJ.

    Succession planning and a developing staff? Oh no, a national search instead.

    The new Superintendent, a 10% raise. Oh the cost of living in our District, but supposedly he isn’t moving here. Oh inflation, oh yeah that’s a good one. Forgot, it’s in the union contracts. A national search to find a guy from the ‘hood.

    And the list of accomplishments of the last five years, did we see those, or are they the scores of students that would be predicted in an above average socioeconomic area regardless of the schools?

    Magnificent negotiations with the unions. Three cheers. Oh but no results.

    Perhaps we could cut the funds the School District uses to advocate for the School Budget. A fair election? Oh my, oh my :-)

    Efficiencies accomplished and proposed? No way. A tax increase some advocate, well No Way.

    Cut a little bit here and a little bit there till we’ve reached the supposed bone but spend more and borrowed from “savings” ’cause of course next year will bring a magic windfall, like expiring state aid. And perhaps a little new math to make revenue projections match expenses and watch out if they don’t. Well the current Superintendent won’t be here so he’ll be okay.

    If gullible residents accepted this “best of the worst” budget, just how much does Mr. Sachs think would be the tax increase next year?

    Oh, do you know how many are students are in Ms. Engels class ?

    So yes, the residents of the community will be out to vote on May 18. Even though the elections are held where it may not be convenient for many, not their usual polling place you know. A fair election? Oh my, oh my :-)

    But “Now is NOT the time to say no. The system needs an overhaul, but not mid-stream.” says the author of the letter. Sorry, that is what has gotten us to where we are now. An impossible position with a more worrisome future. After a year of discussion the answer is put to off an answer – that’s not an answer!

    Now, not tomorrow is the time for better answers. So to save the students and the future for us all on May 18th at the schools the residents will be out with the only possible answer now, the answer to VOTE NO.

    ‘The most dangerous strategy is to jump a chasm in two leaps.’ – Benjamin Disraeli

  • Groundhog Day

    While I generally agree with Mr. Sacks, I must say that the main issue I have is the lack of accountability. As I and others have said before, I genuinely respect the Board members for volunteering their time for the benefit of our District and I do not envy their positions.

    One theme that seemed to continue through numerous Board meetings were questions about how effectively and efficiently budgeted funds were being used — not just the amount being spent, but the actual results of the programs it was being spent on (e.g. BOCES, the preschool, the smaller class sizes in MAS). I do not recall any definitive responses other than “it is complicated/difficult to assess these things” and “we are looking into it”. The Board did not seem to have any substantive response to questions regarding the low 59% graduation rate of the economically disadvantaged children that we are supposed to be helping with the hundreds of thousands of dollars we spend every year on the preschool and the extra teachers at MAS, nor do I recall them ever following-up with the graduation and successful program completion rates of the BOCES students. I really want to support programs that help these students, but if the only information we can get seems to indicate that we are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars each year on programs that are either not being tracked at all or that actually aren’t successful, how can I? If these programs are working, why isn’t the Board boasting about their successes? I assume Board members are reading this and other submissions I and others have written – if you want my vote, and that of many others, please let us know if the significant amounts of money we are spending on these programs is working and show us how it is working (e.g. why the 59% graduation rate should not trouble us) – absence of this information will lead many of us to the conclusion that the money is being spent without accountability and/or that the programs are not working (in which case they should either be overhauled or replaced).

  • never

    It is good to see a grading system guiding decision-taking. Unfortunately, a performing organization is not to be ranked on timeliness to the game, transparency and collaboration and dedication and thoughtfulness alone. It ought to be assessed primarily on value delivered, and, in these days, value for money. Just like “children first” and “excellence for all” are not objectives, because they are not measurable nor time-bound nor probably achievable, willingness and efforts are not synonymous with performance. <by the way, "diversity" is a circumstance, not a goal. Hence, vote the budget down to continue the education lesson to Board and Administration.

  • Jonathan Sacks

    Where does this 59% number come from? The statistics are as follows for Hispanic identified children in the 2009 School year for 4 year to 6 year rates:

    *Source: New York State Department of Education

    Graduations rates published are misleading, most are 4 year graduation rate and to not take into account summer school and 5/6 year students, the actual graduation rate according to the data is 87% for Hispanic.

    Part of the problem with an underfunded school system is the inability of the administration to track and maintain figures. Data is collected by the DOE, but it is very hard to pull together, the legislature should be mandating a statewide system for historical data to help systems see the trends. This way studies could more easily be done to look at the long term value of any program in place. With that said the overall statistics do show a positive trend. Don’t get me wrong, I am not defending an 87% graduation rate since the total school had a 98% graduation rate, but amongst 4 year graduations 50% of the drop outs were not Hispanic.

    As you can see a lot of detail must go into these analysis and percentages in small populations can be misleading. But again, I would love to know where this 59% number came from.

    • Anon E Mous

      We have more information now than we can use, and less knowledge and understanding than we need. Indeed, we seem to collect information because we have the ability to do so, but we are so busy collecting it that we haven’t devised a means of using it. The true measure of any society is not what it knows but what it does with what it knows. – Warren Bennis

  • cleaner data

    I believe the 59% reflects the graduation rate for students who are economically disadvantaged not students of Hispanic decent. Our community encompasses both affluent Hispanic families and economically disadvantaged non-Hispanic families. In addition, Central School and Chatsworth School house reasonably large populations of students from economically disadvantaged households who do not benefit from the district subsidies in place at Mamaroneck Avenue School. Hence, I believe the question on the table from Groundhog Day is: Are the expenditures at Mamaroneck Avenue School (now in their 10th + year) creating successful outcomes for the target populations? What are the retention and graduation rates of the targeted children from MAS vs. children from the same populations at other schools? I believe the question is: we are spending a large sum of money to support these students: is it working? Is there some other action we should be taking? Those are fair questions that can be answered fairly easily.

    • Groundhog Day

      Thank you, “cleaner data”, you are absolutely correct. With regard to the 59% graduation rate (20% graduation rate for ESL students, by the way), you can go to and search for westchester graduation rates and get the data broken down my school, year, and “type” — e.g. ESL, economically disadvantaged, etc. Mr. Sacks, my comments have nothing to do with a “Hispanic” classification — you should not equate the term “economically disadvantaged” with “Hispanic”. The lower class sizes at MAS are premised on the approximately 35% economically disadvantaged student population there (without regard to race or nationality). Therefore, the statistice you shared, while interesting, have absolutely nothing to do with the programs I am referring to and the questions as to whether they are working. As “cleaner data” stated, these populations exist in the other 3 elementary schools (albeit at smaller percentages) and do not receive this additional benefit. Moreover, 65% of the students at MAS “benefit” from the smaller class sizes and are not categorized as economically disadvantaged. Finally, no statistics I have seen have shown that this very expensive program is helping these kids. These questions have been asked numerous times and I can only assume from the lack of ANY evidence in support of the long-term benefits of this program that we have, in the aggregate, likely spent between $6 million and $10 million on, that there is no evidence to support the premise that this expensive program is actually helping these kids. Why are other (possibly less expensive) options that would actually target all economically disadvantaged students in all 4 elementary schools being explored? (and if they are, why don’t we know abou it?)

  • convince me...

    Mr Sacks,
    I have read and read, and read more, through the budget process this year, and over the last dozen years. You want us to vote yes. Please convince me how making a cut of say, an Assistant Super, or an Assistant Principal at MHS or the “academic coaches” would harm my child more than proposing cuts to sports or arts? I feel these would be better choices. All in, with salary and benefits, say we cut one of each of them, wouldn’t we be saving at least 3/4 of a million dollars?

    • Jonathan Sacks

      I unfortunately am not qualified to define the merits of one program over the other. The Mamaroneck School system continues to improve its performance year over year and for that reason I support their decisions and have gained trust in their judgment. Do I think the board and administration make all the right decisions, no, but there is only so much a board should do, they must leave the job of operating a successful school system to the people with the experience, education and charge. You could question any program; can we show that teaching Chinese has given us an ambassador? How many Pro-Athletes have we ever graduated from our Athletic Program? How many Rhodes Scholars have been awarded through our education program?

      Preserving the Teaching component should be the primary focus and it has been. The Administration, Coaches, ongoing development all appear to be important components to the overall success. The bottom line still comes down to if we believe in them or not. The professional opinion of our Administration and the collective experience of our board feel that the staffing as presented will do the best job at continuing the quality of education we want our children to have. There was a lot of community input and I know firsthand that it was not ignored.

      The answer to all this lies in a meaningful and involved change that happens over time, the board and administration have heard the message, your unions need to hear it as well. Also as stated by you and others here, is the need to develop ways of measuring the multitude of programs currently in place and being proposed. Although the administration uses case studies of other programs and does research before implementing, there should be more follow up. Any good organization reviews their decisions, enhances the good ones and licks their wounds on the bad ones. It’s easy to attack the administration, but if you have spent any time in the schools (and I have), these people are constantly on the move, working long hours and negotiating not just our local bureaucracy but creating redundant reporting and working with antiquated systems based on government requirements.

      I for one do hope that our new Superintendent does better unitizing our administrative staff and introduces new and creative ways to cut down on busy work and that he is able to create a more productive environment.

      It’s also worth noting that our Administration people are also Union employees and that they too are protected by Seniority/Tenure rules, so the expectation of getting significant savings by cutting administrative positions (unless we cut high level positions) is a misnomer.

      • Anon E Mous

        Even if one assumes the concept of tenure, a foundation of academic freedom among faculty in the history of universities, should be applicable to K-12 teachers, how many in the list presented here have the title “teacher”?

        ‘There is no accountability in the public school system – except for coaches. You know what happens to a losing coach. You fire him. A losing teacher can go on losing for 30 years and then go to glory.’ – H. Ross Perot

  • statistics

    Mr Sacks – before calling on the State to fund statistical studies, how about asking the admin to use some of the 60 clerks to run some XL worksheets ? and if for any reason they are unable or unwilling to do so, how about replacing them with young analysts who may not write memos longhand but are able to multitask? It is called productivity, in addition to managing by numbers, and I have not seen any evidence of this in the district.

    • Anon E Mous

      ‘Perhaps having seen how little can be accomplished with so much money, we need to see how much can be accomplished with much littler money.’ – Unknown

  • Judy Silberstein

    Those interested in the NYSED graduation rate statistics can follow the above link.(Search the pdf for “mamaroneck” to scroll down to local data.)

    The data include total numbers of students in each category as well as percentages.

    • cleaner data

      JS- The question on the table can’t be answered with the data as it is publically reported. Groundhog Day’s question pertains to the success at MAS. It isn’t possible to draw conclusions from overall graduation rates since they include students from the other three elementary schools….GHD is asking to see an assessment of the program by reporting data for students originating from MAS. It is an interesting question…if the program is successsful, other students could also benefit. If it is not, maybe there is another more effective way to support our most at-risk students.

    • Groundhog Day

      Judy, Thank you, but that is not at all the data or issue that I am referring to. The link that you included has classifications by race and ethnicity and my question/comment has nothing to do with race or ethnicity. It is my understanding that the smaller class sizes at MAS are based upon a classification of “economically disadvantaged”. This statistics for this for each school district (e.g. 4 year MHS graduation rate for economically disadvantaged students was 59%) can be found on Lohud’s website — they have a graduation rate database. I do not believe the classification has anything to do with race or ethnicity– either in the statistics provided in the database or in the MAS program, so I assume you would find very different data in each classification.

      • Judy Silberstein

        CORRECTION: The SED does have data on economically disadvantaged (separate from race and ethnicity) for Mamaroneck High School graduation rates.Keep scrolling through the SED data for MHS to find that.

        It does not, however, track high school graduation rates specifically for disadvantaged students who attended a particular elementary school.

        Here is the relevant data on economically disadvantaged:

        SED data