It was the Monday after Thanksgiving – a day when families typically feast on leftovers or circle the wagons to recover from house guests – and yet more than 150 people turned out for the Mamaroneck school district’s November 30 special meeting, billed as an exceptional first step to discuss budgeting in tough financial times.
The crowd included elementary parents and those with children on the cusp of graduation, in addition to teachers, administrators, seniors and representatives from the teachers union. In contrast to typical budget presentations attended by a faithful handful of spectators, many who attended Monday’s meeting had never been to a district meeting before.
Preliminary Projection: 9% Roll-over Budget
In a short PowerPoint presentation, Superintendent Paul Fried and Meryl Rubinstein, assistant superintendent for business operations, reminded the community of some budget realities. In the current 2009-2010 budget, salaries make up 57% of expenses, and benefits another 21%. Fixed debt payments make up another 7%.
Projected increases to these fixed items would result in an estimated 9% budget-to-budget increase if the budget were simply “rolled over.” These numbers are preliminary, cautioned Dr. Fried, who acknowledged that presenting such a significant increase in difficult economic times is “not possible” for the community and, in fact, would be “irresponsible.”
A lot of work must be done to get from this number to the budget that Dr. Fried will recommend to the school board in March.
According to Dr. Fried, he has already received a number of suggestions on how to fix the problem via emails and conversations as well as on blogs and online journals. Many of them, however, are not viable. He cannot simply freeze salaries; the five bargaining units would have to agree to reopen their contracts, which are set to run another year. Nor can the district opt out of state tenure and seniority laws, or drop out of the state pension system, which is also governed by state law.
Community Suggestions for Making Cuts
Dr. Fried is looking for community feedback on priorities and suggestions, however, and after the presentation, the gathering divided into six smaller groups so that Dr. Fried, Ms. Rubinstein and board members could hear from the community. One of the six group discussions took place in Spanish, with approximately twenty Spanish-speaking parents participating.
Here are some highlights from the various group discussions:
- Although many participants stated that they clearly valued the wide variety of electives, after-school programs, sports and extracurricular experiences available for students, others wanted to know whether some could be cut, supervised by parent volunteers or paid for by participating families. It was suggested that some public funding would be necessary to assure that students who couldn’t afford to pay could still participate.
- Many attendees asked whether the teachers’ contract and health care benefits could be renegotiated so that positions would not need to be cut. Others wondered if teachers could teach additional classes, or whether lecture-style or on-line classes would make sense at the high school.
- Suggestions were made that the district cut field trips, building security, and translation and second language services, as well as art, music and other specials. Many expressed a desire to understand what (if anything) is required by the state in these areas.
- Questions were raised as to whether the school year could be cut, or students could attend class only four days a week.
- Participants wondered whether revenues could be increased by raising tuition for non-residents (including children of staff), or whether additional economies could be found through an energy audit or by combining purchasing or services with other districts.
- Others wondered about the impact of cutting or reducing aides and instructional coaches.
Community Suggestions about the Budget Process
Many participants asked for a clearer explanation of exactly what is mandated and what is contractual in a variety of areas, including areas like pension contributions, transportation, and requirements for instruction.
Other suggested that the budget be posted on the website, broken into pieces for “wiki” type comments from the public.
Some community members felt that it would be helpful for the district to present several different budget scenarios, showing the impact of different bottom-line tax increases on various programs and staff.
It was suggested that the district reconstitute its finance committee, providing for year-round discussion of budget and finances by a committee that would include members of the bargaining units.
School board president Linnet Tse acknowledged that they heard “many divergent, and contradictory, points of view” at the November 30 meeting. “Something that one community member values may be something another community member thinks we can do without. Unfortunately, there are no easy solutions that will please everyone. “
Indeed, some participants Monday evening were disappointed that they did not get one of the handouts prepared for the meeting (100 were copied); others felt that the district should not have made any copies at all.
“There are also long-term implications that we will have to consider very seriously before any decisions are made,” noted Ms. Tse. “We really appreciate the community’s input and will be carefully reviewing the many suggestions we received. We hope that the community will continue to work with us in the challenging months ahead.”
According to a follow-up email bulletin sent on December 2, the district will be posting additional information on the website, including a document recapping the meeting and answers to frequently asked questions. Dr. Fried and school board members also will be considering the format for additional public meetings.
Suggestions and comments about next steps, priorities, and possible cuts may be sent to Dr. Fried and the school board at firstname.lastname@example.org.