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|
|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.
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.