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Stimulus Funds Lighten School Budget Burdens

Positions Restored and Tax Increase Lowered

The mood at the April 14 Mamaroneck School Board meeting was markedly brighter than in recent weeks.  Superintendent Paul Fried presented his revised recommended budget, explaining that news from Albany and Washington on stimulus funds would allow the district to both restore previously cut positions and have a lower tax increase than first projected.

Although state aid for the district has not been fully restored, Dr. Fried praised Albany for giving Mamaroneck a “fair enough” share of stimulus funds to replace the missing aid.

The revised plan returns the full team structure to the Hommocks Middle School, the assistant principal position at Central School, and several kindergarten and first-grade teachers. Even so, the tax rate increase will go to 3.89%, lower than the original 4.28%.

  Superintendent’s Budget3-17-09 Revised Budget4-14-09
Budget Proposed $120,452,691 $120,695,077
Budget-to-Budget Increase 3.02% 3.23%
Tax Rate Increase 4.28% 3.89%

Concerns About Teacher Cuts Addressed

At the top of the list of issues addressed in the revised budget is elementary class size.  Dr. Fried’s original budget recommended altering guidelines to allow for two more students per elemenatary class, which would have resulted in cuts of 12 elementary teaching and specialist positions.

In response to parent concerns about the significant impact this would have on certain grade levels, Dr. Fried re-examined projected enrollment data and decided to restore one kindergarten position at Murray Avenue School and one first-grade position each for Murray, Central, and Chatsworth.  He also determined that one first-grade position could be cut from Mamaroneck Avenue School.

These adjustments will push the kindergarten and first grade averages back to 18-19, rather than the 23 projected under his original plan. In addition, the revised plan keeps the current Hommocks team structure intact, with no teaching cuts and no resorting to extended teams, as was recently described. (See: HMX Trims Teams.) Although an estimated 38.52 positions will be cut under the revised plan (down from 47.85), Dr. Fried predicts only 18 jobs will be lost after retirements and leaves  are considered.

Federal Funds to Restore Positions

Mamaroneck will share in federal stimulus funds, and Dr. Fried said he and his staff “are all doing our best to understand not just the philosophy, but also the use of the dollars.”  Information available on “webinars” produced by the New York State Education Department describes competing principles, including “spend quickly to save and create jobs” and “thoughtfully invest one-time funds.”

In addition to stabilization funds designed to restore lost state aid,  funds are available under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).  Although the IDEA money is intended to support excess costs of educating students with disabilities and encourage improvements to special education programs, at least some of the funds may be used to cover expenses of current special education programs and for students at risk of needing special services.  This would free up local funds for general education purposes.

Dr. Fried proposed using more than $400,000 of the IDEA funds to bring back positions that were slated to be cut. An additional $227,000 of the federal funds must be used to supplement present special education programs.  Dr. Fried suggested the specifics could be determined by a committee of administrators, teachers and parents who would meet this spring.

Cecilia Absher, policy and legislation representative for SEPTA, questioned the decision to restore teaching positions with IDEA funds, which are only assured for two years. She said the plan “feels a little like using a credit card to make your mortgage payment.”

Dr. Fried said he hoped that in the next two years, two things would happen:  the economy would improve, and the current downturn would encourage the Legislature to look at how schools are funded.

Additional Reductions in the Budget Plan

New reductions in the revised budget come in the form of additional cuts to equipment and supplies, proposed cuts of four assistant coaching positions, and the elimination of a second boys modified lacrosse team at Hommocks.  Additionally, central administrators have given up their contractual salary increases, and more careful attention will be paid to hiring teachers within salary guidelines (for example, looking for experienced teachers, but perhaps not those with 16-18 years of teaching and a PhD). (See: Superintendents Freeze Pay.)

As to possible concessions from the unions, Dr. Fried advised that the Mamaroneck Teachers Union (MTA) leadership has made a proposal which the board would discuss in executive session after the public meeting.  If the board responded favorably, the proposal would be put to a vote by the teachers.  As of Thursday afternoon, no further information was available from either the MTA or the school district.

What Didn’t Get Added Back In

The school board and community had raised concerns about combining two central administrative positions into one, with Dr. Anthony Minotti to serve as assistant superintendent for both personnel and student support services.  Dr. Fried added a part-time clerical position to support Dr. Minotti , but declined to restore the assistant superintendent position.

Similarly, Dr. Fried determined the district could not afford to change class size guidelines to count students in self-contained classrooms who are mainstreamed into regular classrooms for a portion of the day.  After consulting with special education administrators, Dr. Fried felt that wholesale change was unnecessary, and any additional support could by provided as needed by means of 3.5 contingency teaching positions that remain in the recommended budget.

Dr. Fried also determined that restoring English faculty cut at the high school and moving them back to teaching  only four periods was not “as urgent” as other restorations. Other secondary faculty teach five periods a day; historically, MHS English teachers have taught four to allow extra time to confer with students about their writing.

Also not reflected in the budget is the proposed MTA tax on payroll, which could cost the school district some $250,000 to support the ailing transit authority.  Dr. Fried explained the tax is still being debated in Albany, but he feels it is unlikely to  pass.  If it does pass after the budget is finalized,  the tax could be covered by making further cuts to spending or by digging into the fund balance maintained by the district.

Concerns about Co-op Camp
Although most public comments to Dr. Fried’s budget revisions were very positive, several dozen parents and students attended the meeting wearing bright orange and carrying signs in support of Co-op Camp, the district’s academic summer camp, which is slated for significant cuts.  To save money, the superintendent has proposed cutting the elementary camp by almost half and eliminating it entirely at the Hommocks. (Classified students who are entitled to year-round services would still receive them over the summer.)
Supporters of Co-op Camp came clad in orange.

Supporters of Co-op Camp came clad in orange.

A half dozen speakers described the camp as “good for Latinos and the whole community.” They noted the camp allowed a diverse group of students from across the district to improve their social and academic skills (including literacy and mathematics) while also having fun.  Two MHS students described how the camp provided an excellent opportunity for teens to take responsibility and “give back to the community” while working as junior counselors.  Approximately 200 kids will be impacted by the proposed cuts to camp slots and the elimination of the junior counselor program.

Some of the funding for the camp comes from municipalities and outside grants, and it appears that it is too late for the district to apply for some of that support, should it wish to resume operating Co-op Camp at prior levels.  This matter will be explored further over the next week.

Next Steps: Board Approval, Community Vote

The school board will be meeting again on Tuesday, April 21 to review the revised proposal. It may adopt the budget then or, if necessary, at a special meeting on Thursday, April 23.

Another budget hearing is scheduled for May 5, but Dr. Fried explained that this is only a formality. Public comments are allowed, but no changes can be made to the budget at this point.

Both the budget and the proposed “bare bones” capital bond will be presented to the community for vote on Tuesday, May 19.

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2 comments to Stimulus Funds Lighten School Budget Burdens

  • Debbie Manetta

    After reading Melany Gray’s article, Stimulus Funds Lighten School Budget Burden, it’s important that the District clarify for your readers the intended purpose of proposing 3.5 contingency positions in the 2009-2010 Mamaroneck School budget. While Dr. Fried indicated that the positions could be used IF NECESSARY to provide additional support to classrooms that for one reason or another may become “uncomfortably” large during the course of the year (including but certainly not limited to classrooms in which special education students are mainstreamed in), we do not want your readers to be led to believe that the use of these positions for this purpose has been decided at this point. The number of contingency positions included in the budget varies from year to year. Many times the positions are used when we have unanticipated growth in enrollment at a given school, and it is necessary to create additional sections to stay within the Board’s class size guidelines. This year, with the possibility that we may have an extraordinary large number of students returning to our District from private schools, we felt it was necessary to allow for these contingency positions in our Budget. The contingency positions provide us some flexibility in managing issues as they arise to continue the high quality of education for our children.

  • Cecilia10538

    In the article, it states “Cecilia Absher, policy and legislation representative for SEPTA, questioned the decision to restore teaching positions with IDEA funds, which are only assured for two years. She said the plan “feels a little like using a credit card to make your mortgage payment.”

    I justed wanted to clarify for readers why I made that comment – which I meant to be a personal statment not on behalf of SEPTA. In reviewing guidance from the U.S. Dept. of Education about the ARRA’s stimulus funds being granted under the IDEA, school districts are advised that generally, “funds should be used for short-term investments that have the potential for long-term benefits, rather than for expenditures the school districts may not be able to sustain once the recovery funds are expended”. The funds will be given for only two years.

    Regarding the particular funds proposed to be shifted to restore teaching position, there is the following language in the federal guidance: “A [school district] may be able to reduce the level of state and local expenditures otherwise required by the IDEA maintenance of effort (MOE) requirements. State Education departments should encourage school districts that can and do take advantage of this flexibility to focus the freed-up local funds on one-time expenditures such as improving the equitable distribution of effective teachers and the quality and use of assessments to enhance instruction for students most in need.”

    Among the other suggested uses of funds from the U.S. Education Dept are:
    1) Providing intensive district-wide professional development for special education and regular
    education teachers that focuses on scaling-up, through replication, proven and innovative
    evidence-based school-wide strategies in reading, math, writing and science, and positive
    behavioral supports to improve outcomes for students with disabilities, and

    2) Developing or expanding the capacity to collect and use data to improve teaching and learning
    3) Improving instruction and educational delivery to help close the achievement gap.

    I am confident our Superintendent and Board of Education are working very hard to both understand the complex stimulus act provisions and to create a budget that the community can support. As expressed in my letter to the editor, I am concerned about the future of the economy and school budgets and hope the District is able to make decisions that will benefit students for a long time.