“Our schools are facing a financial crisis,” proclaims the November 16 email flyer from the Mamaroneck School District urging the community to attend a “very important meeting” about “budgeting during tough financial times” at 7:30 in the Hommocks Library on Monday, November 30. It concludes by encouraging “if you’ve never attended a District meeting before, make this your first.”
What prompted the scheduling of this special meeting on the heels of the Thanksgiving break? We asked Superintendent Dr. Paul Fried and School Board President Linnet Tse to help us understand the thinking behind the meeting and why the community should attend. Here’s what we learned.
If there is no change in what the district offers – no new programs, no reductions in class size, nothing new – what percentage tax increase can the community expect?
It’s too early to say, said Dr. Fried, who was uncomfortable providing even a ballpark range at this time because the district is still getting information about set costs. But he expects that “a rollover budget would be unacceptable to the community” because it would increase taxes too much.
What are the “unprecedented challenges” mentioned in the announcement?
At the top of the short list are state-mandated pension contributions, explained Dr. Fried. These contributions must be made at a level that will support defined benefits.
Early estimates from the state project a 60% increase in pension contributions for school civil service employees and around a 45% increase in pension contributions for teachers. Together, these increases will likely cost the district close to $4 million, noted Ms. Tse, resulting all by themselves in a tax increase of over 3%.
Contractual salary increases for all five bargaining units are also driving things up, said Dr. Fried. The teachers contract, negotiated during better financial times, provides for a 3.8% raise to scheduled salaries. In addition, the contract requires additional salary increases for education and experience. The contract has one year left to run.
Other big-ticket items include debt servicing and health insurance increases.
Debt is projected to go up approximately $1 million to finance the $22.1 million bond that was passed last year to make critical roof repairs and replace 40-year old boilers, HVAC systems and windows, explained Ms. Tse.
The district purchases health insurance on a calendar-year basis so the increases won’t be determined until December, Dr. Fried pointed out. The district has no control of health insurance costs in the short term, he explained, but if the numbers are out of line with other districts in the long term, it might be worth exploring the possibility of renegotiating.
How do we put this in context? How worried should the community be?
Last year’s economic circumstances resulted in “exceptional steps” to cut non-instructional costs, Dr. Fried recalled, and led to abolishing 34 positions (including 17 teaching positions) and raising elementary class size by an average of two students. “This year,” he continued, “we are facing a similar, if not worse, dilemma or crisis. After the cutting that took place last year, I am deeply worried about what this will mean when we look to try to decrease the escalation of spending so that the community can afford to support the budget.”
Electives, athletics and the arts will all “come under question,” Dr. Fried said.
What kind of initiatives would make a difference? If the district can’t cut state-mandated expenses, won’t that mean cutting teachers?
It’s too soon to talk about specific initiatives, insisted Dr. Fried, who explained that he will not be sharing figures for possible cuts with the community before presenting a preliminary budget to the board of education. He acknowledged, however, that the more significant the proposed cuts, the greater the likely impact on staffing.
The question, asked Dr. Fried, is: “What are people willing to live with in their school system?” The district will do everything possible to “scrub the budget,” first looking to non-instructional expenses. It will then be necessary to look at what it means to have a 0% increase or a 3% increase, for example, and the cuts that will be necessary to achieve those levels.
How will the November 30 meeting help the district with budget planning?
The meeting “is not a Budget 101” session, Dr. Fried emphasized, but the first half hour will be a presentation so that the community can understand why the district is in a financial crisis.
Once people understand the magnitude of the issues, Dr. Fried and school board members will be interested in hearing questions from community members. Perhaps even more importantly, they will be hoping to hear how people weigh in on their priorities. What do people think should be cut first, and what should be preserved?
In the end, the school board will have to determine where the community stands on preserving the things that have made Mamaroneck unique, Dr. Fried noted, and “what we are prepared to sacrifice to preserve class size.” He cautioned, however, that “there are no magic bullets or tricks” to fix the situation.