Mamaroneck School Superintendent Paul Fried’s recommended budget has been out for only a week. Yet already it has generated dozens of comments and questions via email and at budget workshops on March 21 and 24 that were attended by over 100 people. The recommended budget calls for cuts of more than 47 positions, increases in class size at all schools, and a tax increase of 4.28%. (See: Superintendent’s Budget Calls For Many Cuts, 4.28% Tax Hike.)
Seven hours of line-by-line budget review with the board and community at the workshops have not been enough to cover all issues. An additional session is scheduled for April 1 at 8:00 pm. The superintendent will present a revised budget on April 14; the board will present their revisions on April 21 and will take a final vote on April 23. Except on April 1, meetings will begin at 7:30 pm; all are in the tiered classroom at Mamaroneck High School.
Teacher “Give-Backs” and Other Uncertainties
Presaging the possibility of concessions, Ann Borselino, president of the Mamaroneck Teachers’ Association, closed Tuesday night’s workshop by indicating that her group was “working tirelessly exploring ways to help our Larchmont/Mamaroneck community during these hard times. We heard you in 1994, and we gave back 2% of our salary. We are listening now.” There are “preliminary and productive discussions” underway in the MTA aimed at saving teachers’ jobs, she reported.
The possibility of a union “giveback” on salary increases or health benefits is just one open issue besetting the school board as it prepares a final budget for community vote on May 19. Questions remain on the possibility of new state mandates and on the timing and amount of federal stimulus monies.
Also undecided is what to do if state funding is reinstated at prior levels or new stimulus funds come in. Community feedback has raised competing priorities, said Linnet Tse, school board president. Deciding among them is “part of the balancing act we must do,” she said. The board will continue to seek and analyze community input as it prepares its final budget.
Below are highlights from this week’s budget workshops. Additional answers to frequently raised questions along with other budget information can be found on the district website at www.mamkschools.org.
Elementary Class Size – Fair?
The vast majority of community comments related to proposed increases in elementary class size by two students at all four elementary schools. Mamaroneck class size is already on the high end by Westchester standards, noted some parents. Ms. Tse recalled that board guidelines lowered class size to their present levels several years ago. “We’ve had the luxury of being able to bring it down,” she said. However, both Ms. Tse and Dr. Fried emphasized throughout both budget workshops that schools are people intensive. With staff salaries and benefits accounting for 78% of expenditures, the only way to make up for decreased revenues is to cut positions.
With respect to lower class guidelines at Mamaroneck Avenue School (MAS), these were prompted several years ago by that school’s relatively low test scores. Dr. Fried explained that No Child Left Behind legislation “punishes districts that don’t make adequate yearly progress,” and MAS was not meeting state standards. Districts are at risk of losing aid, for example. Fortunately, smaller classes and other supports have resulted in “good gains” at MAS, said Dr. Fried, but the achievement gap has not yet closed.
On Tuesday, one parent acknowledged the need for different guidelines for MAS, but said, “the question is the breakpoint.” She suggested that raising the MAS guidelines by even one student could save a teaching position.
Objections to Cuts at Central School
Central School parents were the most vocal group, objecting to the proposed cut of their assistant principal and loss of two classroom teachers and other specialists. Dr. Fried explained that Central is the smallest school in the district, and other Westchester schools have only one administrator at much larger schools.
Dr. Fried did acknowledged an “unfortunate mistake” with Central’s enrollment on page 57 of the budget book. Central now has 433 students (not 477) in regular classes and 43 special education students in self-contained classes. Rather than a decrease for 2009-2010, as previously reported, Central is projected to gain 15 students, for a total of 491. (See: Corrected Enrollment.)
PTA co-presidents of all four elementary schools unanimously oppose eliminating Central’s assistant principal, reported Jennifer Malherbe, PTA co-president at Central. Other Central parents spoke about the school’s diversity, not only in terms of ethnic and socioeconomic makeup, but also because 80% of the district’s elementary special education students assigned to self-contained classes are housed at Central, including those from the other three neighborhood schools.
These factors, together with Central fifth graders scoring lowest in the district on 2008 state tests, warranted keeping the administrative position, parents argued. They suggested either applying reduced class size guidelines for Central or counting in a regular class total those special education students who are “mainstreamed” into the class for a portion of the day.
Some parents argued that the board and Dr. Fried did not understand the “complexity” of Central. But Dr. Fried rejected this as “a complete misstatement,” citing experience that he and other administrators had in other complex school districts and the time they spent at Central.
Concerns About Cutting an Assistant Superintendent
Several parents, including representatives from the district’s Special Education Parent Teacher Association (SEPTA), voiced concerns about plans to cut one assistant superintendent. Pete Scordo, interim superintendent for personnel, is leaving at the end of the school year, and Dr. Anthony Minotti, assistant superintendent for student support services, is slated to take on the personnel position while continuing to oversee special education and other support staff, such as nurses, guidance counselors and psychologists.
Some questioned whether gains made in delivering mandated special education services could be maintained. Others wondered how Dr. Minotti could supervise special education and support services if he is to spend 80-90% of his time on personnel, as Dr. Fried has projected.
Dr. Minotti conceded that he had yet to “knock out the specifics” with the two special education directors or other central administrators, but expressed confidence that structures put in place this year would continue. Dr. Fried acknowledged the greater workload for remaining central administrators, but emphasized his belief that they could handle it. The alternative, he said, was to cut two more teachers.
Other Possible Cuts
Ms. Tse reported receiving e-mails calling for no tax increase, which would require further budget cuts. (See: Letters to the Editors ) However, at the two budget workshops, most cuts recommended by community members were alternatives to cutting staff. Some suggested paring back expenses for professional development or instructional coaches rather than eliminating teachers.
Annie Ward, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, said she had already trimmed $125,900 for professional development from accounts under her control and more had been cut by building principals. Instructional coaches are key to developing curriculum consistency, she said, and because they work with teachers in their classrooms, they save the cost of hiring substitutes for teachers to meet with consultants outside of class.
Proposed cuts to athletics and extracurricular activities have not yet been spelled out. Dr. Fried said he has cut $90,000 out of athletics and physical education, but no teams have been eliminated. Additional cuts are under consideration.