Public schools are at the epicenter of the economic crisis, leadership from the Rye Neck and Mamaroneck school districts told the Local Summit when it met at the Nautilus Diner in Mamaroneck on March 16th.
Westchester County has long been known for having among the highest achieving school districts in New York State, and even in the country. But, as the economy sputters and the burden of property taxes weighs heavier, maintaining this level of quality has become much more challenging, said the superintendents of both districts, as they described this year’s fiscal hurdles and led a discussion of the future of public education in our area.
Listening to Their Communities
Dr. Paul Fried, Superintendent of Mamaroneck Schools (www.mamkschools.org), and Dr. Peter Mustich, Superintendent of Rye Neck Schools (www.ryeneck.k12.ny.us), opened by talking about the months of planning involved in developing next year’s budgets, beginning with listening sessions to help the districts and school boards better understand what is valued by the community, and subsequently extrapolating goals and objectives from that. Dr. Fried mentioned that one thing that came out of Mamaroneck’s early meetings was a list of 200 questions that now appear in FAQ form on the school district’s website, and serve as an encyclopedia of budget information relevant to any school district.
Both districts welcome community involvement and want people to become informed about their school budget. As Dr. Fried stated, “we see this as a united effort … we are all in this together.” The two districts presented their Superintendent’s Recommended Budgets to the community this week in the first of several budget hearings. Information regarding the time and place of the hearings, as well as details of the budgets themselves, can be found on the district websites.
State Cuts and Mandates
Taxpayers foot most of the bill for schools, since by the state’s standards both Mamaroneck and Rye Neck are considered to be wealthy districts, thereby qualifying for minimal aid: approximately 5% of Mamaroneck’s revenues come from state aid, and in Rye Neck the comparable figure is 4%. Both districts appear near the very bottom of the list of over 700 New York school districts in terms of current state aid received, and the dollar amount of state aid is likely to decrease for the coming year.
On the flip side of state aid revenue are state mandates, which represent significant costs to school districts. Applause broke out from the audience after Dr. Mustich declared, “Keep your state aid. Get rid of the mandates.” As an example, he asserted that Rye Neck’s students do not need to be tested year after year on state assessments and believes the state should test high-performing schools less frequently.
Another challenge faced by the school districts this year is a decrease in property assessments. As assessed values in the community drop, each household pays a larger share in making up the whole. This raises the tax rate independent of any budgetary increase in the school district.
Slowing the Rate of Property Tax Growth
To minimize the property tax increase, Mamaroneck and Rye Neck are proposing several budget-reduction initiatives. As Dr. Fried expressed it, the districts could not simply “roll over” this year’s budget into next year, because the cost to taxpayers would have been too great. Both districts considered many options for cuts, and challenged building principals and other administrators to produce budgets with various levels of reduction. Although state law limits schools so they don’t have the same tools that a business might have to increase revenues and decrease expenditures, Dr. Mustich assured the audience that “we’ve been careful to look at every single thing.” He added that Rye Neck has also frozen spending in the current year’s budget.
Proposed Budget Increases May Be Lowest in History
The Superintendent’s Recommended Budget in Mamaroneck proposes a budget-to-budget growth of 1.47%, which is perhaps the lowest in district history, according to Dr. Fried. This is being accomplished by significant cuts in several areas, including a reduction in staff of 56.3 positions, 11 of which are teaching staff. The resulting tax rate increase would be 2.81%.
In Rye Neck, the budget-to-budget increase is 1.08%, which carries an estimated tax rate increase of 2.04% for Rye Town residents and 3.88% for Rye City residents. This anticipates a reduction in 2.7 staff positions. Dr. Mustich stressed that superintendents and school boards are working hard to bring reasonable tax increases to the voters, but they must make tough, unpopular decisions in order to accomplish this. Two examples he offered from Rye Neck were charging municipal leagues fees to use district fields and facilities and converting some private and parochial school transportation routes from private to public carriers where permitted by New York state law.
Unlike municipal budgets, school budgets can be approved only with a community vote. This year, the school budget vote is scheduled for Tuesday, May 18th. If a school budget is not approved, districts have the option of putting a revised budget out for a second vote, or adopting a contingency budget. If the second vote also fails, the contingency budget must be adopted. Under the formula specified by current state education law, this year a contingency budget must have a decrease under the current year’s budget of -0.4%. The Governor’s proposed state budget includes a proposal to limit the contingent budget reduction to 0% of the current year.
Dr. Fried pointed out that because of rising fixed costs like utilities, benefits, transportation and contractual increases, a 0% contingent budget would force deep cuts. This could mean a potential reduction of 24 additional staff members in the Mamaroneck district, on top of the personnel cuts already included in the budget plan. Dr. Fried asserted that it would be “devastating” to the community to have to go that far.
The Future Sustainability of Our Public Schools
Panelists and audience members expressed concern over the ability of the community to continue to pay for educational excellence. Dr. Mustich expressed the fear that without a new funding mechanism schools will continue to have to make cuts, and people who can, will walk away from public schools. Jeremy Ingpen, Summit board member and Executive Director of the Washingtonville Housing Alliance, stated that an important characteristic of Mamaroneck and Rye Neck schools is that the very rich and very poor all get the same high quality education; he believes the moment we lose the wealthiest 20%, we break something magical and marginalize our schools.
Dr. Fried emphasized the growing importance of public/private partnerships, and cited the Mamaroneck Schools Foundation and fundraising initiatives for a new all-weather field and reinstitution of the co-op summer camp last year as sterling examples. He also said that this is the final year of the Mamaroneck teachers’ contract, which was negotiated in better economic times. Newer contracts, like that in Rye Neck, are reflective of the changed economic conditions. He anticipates the terms of Mamaroneck’s next contract will help curtail budget increases.
Other potential cost-saving ideas included increasing student-to-teacher ratios through a lecture center or virtual courses. Councilman Ernie Odierna of the Town of Mamaroneck echoed Dr. Mustich’s call for more school/municipal cooperation, saying that there may be opportunities for shared services. He offered up the possibility of using senior busses to make early runs with school children.
Bruce Shearer, a Summit board member, urged the school districts to adapt to the new reality, saying that school boards need to come forward with a new vision and model for education and school management in an era of cuts.
The Local Summit, which hosted the meeting, is a nonpartisan, informal community council that seeks to make Larchmont/Mamaroneck a better place to live for everyone. Its meetings are intended to inform and encourage an exchange of ideas and possible solutions. All are invited to the Local Summit’s regular meetings which take place at 7:45 a.m., typically on the third Tuesday of the month at the Nautilus Diner in Mamaroneck.
Heidi Sickles is president of the Rye Neck School Board.