Last week’s plan for half-day kindergarten is out, the high school reading teacher is back, and other tweaks have been made, resulting in cuts of 52 employees and more than $7.6 million. That summarizes the latest budget recommendations presented on February 9 by Mamaroneck Schools Superintendent Dr. Paul Fried.
Over 500 people attended the budget reduction session, including a contingent of Hommocks students lobbying for restoration of funds for the school musical.
However, most left before the big question came up for discussion at 11 pm: Will the community really support a 5.82% tax increase?
That would be the projected impact on taxpayers from the 2.82% budget-to-budget increase that remains – even after all the cuts recommended by Dr. Fried. Lost revenues (including sales taxes and state aid) and lower property valuations are responsible for the three-point gap.
If the community does not approve a budget after two votes, a contingency budget goes into effect that would require an additional $3.4 million in cuts beyond those already proposed. And even the 0% contingency budget would require a 2.66% tax hike.
Elementary Parents Unite to Challenge Kindergarten Cuts
The biggest change from last week’s proposals was Dr. Fried’s recommendation to abandon moving to half-day kindergarten for most students. Instead, Dr. Fried and the elementary principals recommend cutting two elementary teaching positions, along with two contingency positions.
Additional cuts at the elementary level include:
- reducing art instruction minutes for kindergarteners and first graders from 45 minutes to 30;
- eliminating all elementary field trips and the Lincoln Center program;
- reducing after-school academic support;
- eliminating a liaison who works with Latino parents at Mamaroneck Avenue School (MAS); and
- eliminating practice tests in grades 3-5 and the ERB writing diagnostic test for grade 5.
Under this plan, dubbed Option E, the superintendent would need the board’s approval to exceed class size guidelines based on enrollment. As in last week’s plan, this plan also calls for cuts of one instructional coach, five special ed aides, and five special ed teaching assistants at the elementary level.
The total elementary savings? Option E would save $1,051,460 – somewhat less that the $1,352,200 that could be saved by moving to half-day kindergarten.
Rick Marsico, school board vice president, estimated the district had received hundreds of emails, with “90-95 percent of them” opposing half-day kindergarten. Almost half recommended Mamaroneck drop its current hybrid model in favor of a full-day program for all.
Similarly, no one at the meeting spoke for half-day; several favored full-day for all four schools. Currently, only Mamaroneck Avenue School (MAS) has the full-day program.
MAS went to a full-day program several years ago because of disparities in test scores between MAS students, many of whom are Latino, and students at the other three elementary schools. At the time, parents at the other schools preferred the hybrid model of three full days and two half days.
Judging from emails and comments at the budget session, parental sentiment may have shifted.
Having only one school with the full program “is inequitable and discriminatory,” asserted district resident Carrie Plan at Tuesday’s session.
Dr. Fried encouraged the board to investigate going to a full-day program district-wide, which could be implemented without increasing costs.
Teachers’ Contract Under Attack
Those who attended the meeting grew raucous at times, applauding comments they endorsed even when requested not to do so by both Dr. Fried and Linnet Tse, the board president. Support for full-day kindergarten and frustration with the teachers’ union were topics that generated the most clapping.
Several attendees questioned contractual raises teachers will receive this year, including Jonathan Sacks, who generated applause when he stated teachers “haven’t seen pain and suffering” like others in the community. He said teachers should be willing to make sacrifices to protect jobs, suggesting “a number of at least a million.”
Jill Lankler criticized various provisions in the teachers’ contract, including one allowing teachers to leave 15 minutes early to attend monthly union meetings. She argued the union has “pitted parents against teachers, which isn’t where anyone wants to be.” Flyers circulating at the meeting expressed anti-union sentiment.
Ms. Tse addressed the fact that the current teachers’ contract, “settled just before the financial collapse,” provides raises and terms that many community members now find unreasonable. “We’re in a difficult position because of the contracts,” she said, but asserted they were fair and competitive when negotiated. Lots of progress was made, said Ms. Tse, both in gaining instructional time and in implementing a new evaluation procedure for teachers.
Further, she stressed, “We’re trying to separate our difficulty with the contract from our respect for the teachers.”
Dr. Fried has asked union leadership for concessions, he reiterated, but legally he is precluded from negotiating directly with teachers. In response to parent questions, he said others may talk to the union leaders, either by calling them or visiting them in their office at the Hommocks.
Several speakers supported the teachers. Rich Ferguson noted “teachers seem to be low hanging fruit” in the budget reduction process.
Absent, though, were comments from the teachers themselves, although many were in the room. The only teacher to comment was Linda Sherwood (MHS, English), who said she was speaking as a parent in thanking Dr. Fried for restoring the high school reading teacher. She urged the board not to cut electives, which she said were particularly important for filling the schedules of students who do not take advanced classes.
More Athletic Cuts?
Several parents suggested there was room for further cuts to athletics. Carrie Tucker said she is passionate about sports, but the community is “saturated” with athletics. Tina Maresca described herself as a “big supporter” of athletics, but wondered if booster clubs couldn’t fill the gap. In contrast, parent fund raising couldn’t bring back teachers who were cut.
Another option was having more high school athletes use the “athletic option” (credit for team participation) in lieu of taking physical education. This could allow for cuts to the physical education staff.
What Else Can Be Cut?
Several parents asked about cutting more clerical staff rather than teachers, and several board members supported reviewing this option.
Jean Marie Stein put the high school’s college financial aid advisor in the “would-be-nice category,” questioning whether such expenses are sustainable if teachers are being cut.
Gail Julie asked why the Hommocks literacy coach wasn’t cut before the high school English teacher. Hommocks Principal Seth Weitzman responded that the literacy coach brings “lots of bang for the buck,” working part-time (0.6) as an instructional coach with teachers and the remainder of her time (0.4) as a reading teacher working directly with students.
Others questioned funds for consultants. Assistant Superintendent Anthony Minotti explained consultants are often the most efficient providers of mandated services for children with special needs.
Consultants for staff and curriculum development have been cut to a “bare bones amount,” asserted Assistant Superintendent Annie Ward. Funds have gone from $145,000 to $45,000, with the remaining funds going primarily for mandated support for struggling students or for ESL students.
Can Revenues Be Increased?
Queried about increasing revenues, Ms. Tse explained the board is exploring its policies but state law precludes schools from renting district facilities to for-profit organizations for events at which a fee will be charged. Nor can the district initiate booster clubs to support athletics or extracurriculars, although parents can do so.
How Does Mamaroneck Compare?
Eric Meyers questioned Mamaroneck’s spending, erroneously stating Scarsdale spends much less per pupil. Dr. Fried said Scarsdale actually spends approximately $3,000 more per pupil. With Mamaroneck’s 5000 pupils, that would be like having an extra $15 million, he said.
Ms. Tse clarified that out of 40 Westchester districts, Mamaroneck is number 26 in spending. She said further information could be found at www.seethroughny.net and on the district’s Budget Communications page.
What Comes Next?
Although the estimated tax rate was presented early in Dr. Fried’s presentation, it was only when he raised the issue again – literally at the eleventh hour – that there was any discussion.
Board member Robin Nichinsky said she would like to see a tax increase lower than 5%. Mr. Marsico asked whether it was time to think about dipping into district reserves. “I don’t like this number – 5.82,” he said, “but I’m not comfortable with more cuts.”
The next scheduled meeting to discuss the budget is not until March 16, when Dr. Fried will submit his formal recommended budget to the school board. It “seems essential,” though, that another meeting be scheduled before then, said Dr. Fried.
Information about future meetings will be posted on the district website. Additional information about the budget process is posted there as well. Comments and questions may be directed to the school board at email@example.com.
LMC-TV will be re-airing the meeting on channel 75 (Cablevision) and channel 36 (Verizon) according to the following schedule:
Friday, 2/12, 6pm
Saturday, 2/13, 12am, 6am, 12pm, 6pm
Sunday, 2/14, 12am, 6am, 12pm, 6pm
Monday, 2/15, 12am, 6am, 12pm