While the March 2 meeting of the Mamaroneck School Board opened on a sunny note, with good news on the district\’s energy efficiency, it finished somberly as Superintendent Paul Fried presented further budget reductions. “This is the darkest hour in public education we have seen in our lifetimes,” he concluded.
After the current round of cuts, the estimated budget-to-budget increase would be 2.1%, which translates to a 4.45% tax rate increase, down from last month’s proposed 2.82% budget increase and 5.82% tax increase. Cuts to staffing and programs are significant.
Still unclear are what, if any, concessions the teachers’ union will make, and whether the board thinks the tax increase is low enough for the community to approve.
A contingency budget – imposed if the budget is not approved after two votes – would allow no increase over last year’s budget and would require an additional $2.2 million reduction. That could mean cutting 22 more staff members, in addition to the 59 already proposed, 17.4 of them teaching positions.
What Has Been Added or Cut Since the Last Budget Reduction Session?
There would be more staff cuts but no reductions in teaching positions beyond those Dr. Fried proposed at the February 9 workshop. “As we looked,” he noted, “we were careful not to have any further effect on teachers.”
The latest plan would restore one special education teacher and a 0.4 portion of an English teacher (equivalent to two periods of English instruction). The new reductions, would eliminate five clerical positions, one maintenance worker, one technician and the high school’s financial aid advisor (a 0.5 position).
Dr. Fried recommended restoring half the funding for the Hommocks musical and the MHS Senior Musical ($ 19,200 for the two). Instead, he suggested cutting two of six PACE extracurricular shows ($13,000), eliminating the elementary Constitution Works program ($11,000) and reducing funding for the Shakespeare Festival by $4,000. At the high school, he would eliminate the Science Olympiad and one of two literary magazines.
Dr. Fried said he anticipates reductions to the district’s co-op camps as well. Last year, cuts to these programs generated an outpouring of community objections – and private money – that resulted in full reinstatement of the co-op camps..
Also on the cutting block in the current round was the remaining $400,000 in capital reserves, leaving no funds for planned summer painting projects. There was also a loss of guidance department summer salaries ($10,000) and curriculum development salaries ($15,000).
The public relations budget will be decreased by $20,000, which means the four “Know Your Schools” bulletins will not be printed and mailed to households.
The district is continuing to get better information to estimate expenses, allowing the superintendent to project $64,000 less will be needed for contractual retirement incentives.
How Would the New Cuts Impact Taxes?
All told, Dr. Fried’s revised recommendations would still have the district spending $2.5 million or 2.10% more than last year. A greater share, however, will be coming from tax payers, as a result of decreases in state aid and other revenues.
In a typical year, state aid exceeds early projections, but this year Assistant Superintendent for Business Operations Meryl Rubinstein is assuming the district may lose another 10%.
To reduce the tax levy, or the amount that the community must kick in for the budget, Dr. Fried is now proposing to take an additional $614,000 from the fund balance and reserves. This would yield an increase in the tax levy of 3.03%. However because of reductions in assessed property valuations – which is not under district control – the projected tax rate increase would be 4.45%.
Where Are the Teachers?
For several community members who addressed the board, the focus was on the teachers and their union, the Mamaroneck Teachers Association (MTA). Jonathan Sacks said he had not seen any cost-saving suggestions put forth by the union.
Dr. Fried replied that MTA had given him a list of proposed reductions and he had incorporated many in his proposals. He reiterated his expectation that the union may have additional responses after his formal presentation of the Superintendent’s Recommended Budget on March 16.
Both Dr. Fried and several board members reminded the audience that in a “normal” year, public conversations on the budget begin only after the superintendent presents his budget. There is nothing unusual, they said, in the teachers wanting to wait for the formal proposal before discussing any possible concessions. This year’s earlier budget sessions are because of the fiscal crisis.
Mr. Sacks said, however, that the teachers’ “silence at this point is being taken as unwillingness to participate.”
Sue Odierna spoke in support of the teachers, noting how hard they work and how they wait 12-14 years before achieving salaries of $100,000 or more. Dr. Fried suggested tax payers do not begrudge the teachers their salaries. “It’s the raise,” he said. “That’s what puts the budget in jeopardy.”
Contractual raises, taken together with salary increases for longevity and educational coursework, will result in average raises of 6-7% this year, the last year in a contract negotiated in much better economic times. “The raise is too much for right now,” Dr. Fried stated.
Alice Tenney agreed. “It is the raise,” she said, but it’s “also a matter of productivity.” She said the perception in the community is that the teachers’ contract has lots of provisions about “what teachers will and will not do, and when they will and will not work.”
Can Professional Development Costs be Cut Further?
Professional development costs remains controversial. Ms. Odierna wondered if that part of the budget could scaled back beyond the two-thirds it has already been cut. She reported that teachers with whom she has spoken do not find the instructional coaches as effective as teacher mentors.
One teacher, she said, expressed her wish that “I could just close my door and teach.”
But Dr. Fried reiterated his strong belief that teachers need professional development. “We all need to work on being more effective,” he said.
Rina Beder agreed. She said “professional development seems to be a very easy target,” but many teachers appreciate the professional development opportunities, which help them improve and hone their skills. She told of a personal experience, where her child’s teacher was having trouble providing differentiated math instruction and the math coach stepped in to make a difference.
Is a Financial Aid Advisor Needed at the High School?
Ms. Tenney and Ms. Beder cautioned the board that the cuts of the financial aid advisor and extracurriculars would impact students negatively. Ms. Tenney wondered what will happen “to the bulk of our students” who need at least some help financing college and turn to the current advisor to learn how to get that help. Dr. Fried was confident the guidance counselors could take over that function.
What Does the Board Think About the Bottom Line?
Board members declined to take a position on whether the proposed 4.45% tax increase would be acceptable. However, Robin Nichinsky said she would like to see the number get below 4%. She hoped this could be done without further cuts (if state aid comes in higher than projected, for example), but felt Dr. Fried should “look for other reductions.”
An additional $600,000 would need to be cut to get below a 4% tax increase.
Anant Nambier also expressed a desire to get below 4%, but wondered if this could be accomplished by using more fund balance. Ms. Rubinstein said this would negatively impact the following year’s tax rate. She is planning a demonstration of this concept for the next budget session.
Harriet Barish expressed concern about further cuts; she wanted to “leave schools and programs intact.” Others echoed this sentiment, and Rick Marsico said he felt comfortable that they “could make the case” to the community.
There was not much public comment at this session on the proposed increase, but community member Jo Rein wondered “how you get a 4.5% tax increase passed,” especially when many neighboring communities are coming in lower.
After Dr. Fried presents his recommended budget on March 16, there will be multiple opportunities for public comment. Changes may be made over the next month, but the board must adopt a final budget on April 20. The community then votes on May 18.
Upcoming School Board Meetings:
Tuesday, March 9, 7:30 pm, MHS Library Classroom, District Assessment Report
Tuesday, March 16, 7:30 pm, MHS Tiered Classroom, Superintendent’s Recommended Budget