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Property Taxes

Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine at his state of the town address April 3. Photo by Alex Petroski

Sharing is a beautiful thing. It can foster friendships and good will, and even net a municipality a $20 million check.

Brookhaven Town was selected June 14 as the winner of the Municipal Consolidation and Efficiency Competition, an initiative announced by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) in 2016 that challenged local governments to submit in-depth proposals for reducing the cost of living through streamlining services offered by overlapping taxing jurisdictions like villages, schools, ambulance companies, library and fire districts, towns and counties. Brookhaven was amongst six finalists as of summer 2017, the others being smaller upstate municipalities. Each of the nine incorporated villages within Brookhaven passed resolutions identifying the areas in which a consolidation of services makes sense, and officially pledged partnership with the town in pursuing the projects last year.

“High property taxes are a burden that far too many New Yorkers must bear and we will continue to deliver innovative solutions to keep taxes down without sacrificing the services they provide,” Cuomo said in a statement June 14. “I congratulate Brookhaven for putting forth a creative plan to better serve their community and crafting an innovative model to save taxpayer dollars.”

Some of the projects in the town’s proposal included the consolidation of tax collection and tax assessor services; utilizing Brookhaven’s staffed maintenance workers rather than putting out bids for contracts; creating a regional salt facility to be used during snow removal; using town contracts to buy in bulk for things like asphalt replacement , which yield a better price due to Brookhaven’s size compared to the smaller villages; and creating a digital record keeping and storage system.

“We expect this grant to help us reduce costs to our taxpayers and save our taxpayers millions of dollars,” Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) said in announcing the win for the town prior to the June 14 public meeting. “So while we’re delighted that we won, out of all of the municipalities in the state, we were selected — we’re very happy for our taxpayers.”

The supervisor estimated in July 2017 in total, the projects would result in a savings of about $66 million for taxpayers – a return of more than three times the investment made by the state. He thanked town’s Chief of Operations Matt Miner for his work in crafting the proposal, and Deputy Supervisor Dan Panico (R-Manorville) for going to Albany to present the town’s plan. Romaine added that winning the grant wouldn’t have been possible if not for the work of the entire town board and other staff members from all town departments.

“We worked very hard — we all contributed,” the supervisor said.

In a 2017 interview, Romaine and Miner both stressed the importance of allowing the villages to maintain their autonomy despite the consolidation of services. The projects will emphasize ways to eliminate unnecessary redundancies in government services while allowing incorporated villages to maintain individual oversight. Romaine also dispelled possible concerns about loss of jobs. He said he expects the phase out of antiquated departments through retirements, stating no layoffs will be required to make the consolidation projects happen.

BOE candidates Ryan Biedenkapp, Mia Farina, Jason Kronberg, René Tidwell, Tracy Zamek and Ryan Walker. Photo by Alex Petroski

By Alex Petroski

Candidates for Port Jefferson School District’s board of education have thrown themselves into the world of public service at a tumultuous time for the district and education more broadly. To better inform voters about the positions of the six candidates vying for three trustee seats prior to heading to the polls May 15, each was asked to provide answers to the same  questions.

Candidate Mia Farina answered the questions during a phone interview while the other five chose to respond via email. Their answers to the questions, or answers in part, are provided below in alphabetical order by the candidate’s last name.

If the district loses revenue as a result of a LIPA settlement, how can the BOE scale down the budget without doing too much harm to existing programs?

There is the possibility of losing property tax revenue as a legal battle plays out between Port Jefferson Village, the school district and Long Island Power Authority, which has a plant in the village. The utility company contends Town of Brookhaven  overassessed and is seeking to reduce the assessment. The district receives about half of the revenue in its budget from taxes paid by LIPA based on the plant’s assessment.

The village and Brookhaven have publicly stated a settlement is on the horizon, the result of which will likely reduce the plant’s assessment, though few details have been shared. The district has publicized a plan for the budget should an official settlement be reached in time to impact the 2018-19 school year, with
proposed cuts to instrument rental availability, textbooks, athletic teams, clubs and overnight field trips, to name a few.

Budget highlights
  • $44,945,812 for total operating budget
  • 3.72 percent increase in 2018-19 compared to current year
  • Additional expenses would be covered with 2.27 percent tax levy increase and 2.23 percent state aid increase
  • All programs rolled over from current year in next year’s budget
  • Expense increase largely due to contractual raises and increasing health insurance costs
  • Second proposition on ballot to release capital reserves for roof repairs
  • Vote May 15 at Earl L. Vandermeulen High School

Ryan Biedenkapp: “There will need to be a scaling down of nonmandated costs by looking to trim where student participation fails to justify the cost. An increase in taxes combined with increased community participation in seeking alternative funding sources will also be required. Maintaining the academic integrity of Port Jefferson schools should be the guiding principle when deciding where reductions will occur.”

Mia Farina: “There’s actually grants out there — privately — [like] music grants that actually [pay for] musical instruments and pay for the maintenance of those instruments, so that alone would cover that lost revenue. I went to public school, and we did fundraisers. We could sponsor events. We possibly may lose revenue. If we could do anything to bring that back by having the community involved … ”

Jason Kronberg: “Depending on how severe the loss of revenue is, I’d like to hold forums with the community to come up with potential cuts to the budget.”

René Tidwell: “As a member of the BOE, I will work diligently to ensure the high standards the district has set for its instructional programs remain in place. I believe the district needs to form a Citizens Advisory Committee immediately, with the objective to assess the impact of the loss of LIPA revenue under various scenarios (such as 50 percent reduction of revenue, reduction on assessment or reduction on payments, etc.).”

Tracy Zamek: “The board can scale down the budget by looking at budget trends, participation rates, enrollment patterns and non-mandated costs. However, a combination of program adjustments and increased taxes will be necessary in order to absorb the significant loss of revenue. The community will once again be asked to provide input through a values survey and community forum response initiative. Understandably, not everyone is going to agree on every priority, but the most important thing to remember is our students come first.”

Ryan Walker: “Several suggestions that have been successful in other districts come to mind, such as encouraging increased philanthropic contributions, seeking out unused state and federal financial aid
opportunities and grant writing. The first thing to consider is what must the district have in order to maintain the high quality of education that makes families chose to move to Port Jefferson.”

Do you believe security officers and/or educators should be armed on school campuses?

Security in schools is never far from district’s and parent’s minds, though this has been particularly true in the wake of the latest mass school shooting in Parkland, Florida, in February, which left 17 dead. Neighboring districts have moved to employ armed security personnel, while some participated in the national discourse through walkouts.

Biedenkapp: “I don’t believe in arming teachers, ever. The idea of having an armed security person inside our schools is one that gives me pause. The retention of a single, possibly two, retired officers, who also was/were licensed air marshal that was carrying [a] concealed [weapon] at the front of the school at the vestibule or outside the school on the perimeter is something that I would be inclined to support.”

Farina: “Absolutely not. Their job is to educate, not to have the responsibility of a [carrying] firearms. Security officers, I believe, should be armed if they’re fully capable of being armed, meaning training is a huge priority.”

Kronberg: “Weapons-trained security can be an essential layer of protection for our schools. There is no definitive study on the effectiveness of this form of protection, but in my opinion it is something, with proper training, that can help prevent and deter violence. Arming teachers in schools is an irresponsible idea.”

Tidwell: “I believe the answer to this question is best answered by the community itself, and as a BOE member, I would recommend a town hall meeting to listen to the community’s ideas and concerns regarding security for our facilities.”

Potential cuts pending LIPA settlement
  • Reduction of rental of music instruments for students ($12,000) Reduction in equipment ($18,000)
  • Reduction of textbooks ($15,000)
  • Reduction of 6 budgeted sports teams based upon student interest ($37,000)
  • Reduction of 6 extra curricular clubs based upon student interest ($18,000) Elimination of overnight/long distance field trips (Busing/Chaperons) ($18,000)
  • Reduction in Board of Education organizational dues ($2,000)
  • Reduction in District Community Printing/Mailings (Newsletters/Calendars) ($10,000)

Walker: “I worked in two school districts as a nationally certified School Resource Officer for the New York State Police Department. At first, residents were hesitant to have a police officer in full uniform, which included a gun, in the schools. Resident hesitation swiftly dissipated as I worked to build a positive collaborative relationship with students, families, administration, teachers and staff.”

Zamek: “I absolutely do not support the idea of having teachers armed in schools. Guns do not belong inside our schools. However, I would welcome a village and community discussion about having professional armed security guards on the outside of schools, especially at arrival [and] dismissal and on the perimeter of fields during recess.”

Do you think BOE communication and transparency with taxpayers can be improved, and if so, how would you do it?

The district and board have been criticized by members of the community for a lack of transparency and for their communication methods on issues, like how the district informed parents of a social media threat made by a student in February long after it was received and via email instead of a robocall.

Biedenkapp: “We can absolutely improve communication with all stakeholders, as well as our transparency. With respect to the taxpayers the district Facebook page should be utilized to give a brief synopsis of each BOE meeting, along with the live video of the meeting and quick links to any pertinent web pages. The school’s web page is rather cumbersome, but design of a new website would be fiscally irresponsible at this time. Residents should have an ability to have their phone number added to the school robocall list.”

Farina: “I think there’s always room for improvement in any type of communication whatsoever. I haven’t really had an issue [with] school communication because I’m very active. … I would ask the community for ideas on how they would want to be notified. Who’s not getting information that wants information? How do you get your information?”

Kronberg: “Communication between the board and community, although strong in many ways, can always be improved. I’m excited for the ‘super team’ approach arrived at by the superintendent for this fall [which brings community members from different sectors together to come up with ideas to solve problems]. While the meetings are online and available, it may be a good idea to provide a question and answer email session with board members, where community members can write in and receive answers to specific questions.”

Tidwell: “I believe there are significant gaps in the BOE’s communication process with all the district’s stakeholders. I would establish a telephone communication protocol that includes all district taxpayers — not just the parents of children attending the district’s schools. I would ensure that taxpayers who currently do not utilize the internet or social media are informed of upcoming BOE events in a timely manner. I propose utilizing cellphone alert applications to remind residents of upcoming meetings, important announcements, etc., all of which could have ‘opt-in’ or ‘opt-out’ choices for all residents.”

Walker: “The current way of disseminating information is adequate for those with children attending schools in the district. However, everyone else must seek out information by checking the district’s web page on a daily basis to make sure they didn’t miss anything important. Printed newsletter mailings to residents are infrequent, costly and not always timely. All residents should have an opportunity to register their email addresses with the school to have the same information sent to them as parents of school children. Board members should make themselves more available to attend public functions, have face-to-face interactions with residents.”

Zamek: “There needs to be a greater emphasis on enrolling every community member on our connect-ed phone, text and email system. I have already started to improve communication between the school and village officials by creating a direct line of communication between the two offices. The school now informs the mayor’s office monthly concerning school board meeting dates and times and provides an agenda.”

Superintendent Paul Casciano and board president, Kathleen Brennan, listen to members of the public during an April 10 board of education meeting. Photos by Alex Petroski

By Alex Petroski

The Port Jefferson board of education voted unanimously to adopt the district’s nearly $45 million 2018-19 budget April 18. This comes eight days after the board decided to table the resolution as it sought more specifics on an announced “agreement in principle” between Town of Brookhaven and the Long Island Power Authority over the utility’s property tax assessment on its Port Jefferson power plant.

Ongoing litigation has loomed over the district and Port Jefferson Village, which each receive substantial amounts of property tax revenue as a result of housing the plant. Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) announced April 3 the town had an agreement in principle to settle the case with LIPA, though specifics of the agreement have yet to be made public. Port Jefferson Village Mayor Margot Garant has also publicly said the village is nearing a settlement in its version of the dispute with LIPA.

“The board of education and district administration have been working tirelessly on creating a budget that addresses our responsibility to provide an excellent education for our students in a physically and emotionally safe and secure environment that is balanced with sensitivity to the fiscal impact on our residents,” Superintendent Paul Casciano said April 18. “The proposed budget assumes that a finalized agreement between the Town of Brookhaven and LIPA does not materialize in time to impact the 2018-19 school budget.”

Casciano said during the April 10 meeting taxpayers should prepare for the possibility of program cuts and/or property tax increases in the coming years.

A letter from Romaine to Casciano and BOE President Kathleen Brennan dated April 11 said the town attorney and assessor’s offices have been in touch with district officials to make the district aware of how a settlement would impact the 2018-19 town assessment rolls, which directly impact school tax rates.

The adopted budget carries a 2.27 percent tax levy increase and a 2.23 percent increase to state aid. The 2018-19 budget rolls over all programs from the current year, with contractual raises and higher health
insurance costs for faculty and staff driving the 3.65 percent overall budget increase.

The district also presented a backup plan should an official settlement be reached between the town and LIPA prior to June 30, which would impact the current year assessments. PJSD is prepared to make $130,000 in reductions to help mitigate a possible 5.67 percent drop in assessed value of the plant, or a 50 percent reduction in the assessment spread out evenly over a nine-year span.

On April 20, state Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport) introduced legislation co-sponsored by Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) that would authorize municipalities to obtain “tax certiorari stabilization reserve funds” via the Urban Development Corporation Act in the event agreed-upon settlements result in loss of tax revenues or increased tax levies of more than 20 percent. The bill is before the state Senate finance committee.

May vote will also feature $32M bond proposition for district wide capital projects

Comsewogue school board President John Swenning and Superintendent Joe Rella, along with the rest of the board and administration, have begun 2018-19 budget preparations. File photo by Alex Petroski

Taxpayers in Comsewogue School District have two important choices to make at the polls May 15.

The board of education unanimously adopted its proposed $91,947,730 budget for the 2018-19 school year during an April 12 meeting. The board also voted back in March to add a second proposition to the ballot to seek permission from the community to borrow $32 million over a 15-year span, with about $3 million in interest, to execute more than 100 repairs and upgrade projects across the district’s six buildings.

If passed, next year’s budget would be about $2 million more than the current year, with contractual, retirement and health insurance increases for faculty and staff being the primary driver of the increase. The higher costs will be covered in large part by a 2.2 percent tax levy increase, a 3.2 percent increase in state aid, and a slight reduction in full-time employees due to several retirements.

Bond

$32 million

$3 million in interest

15-year life

Would fund upgrades at all six district buildings

The district has also placed an emphasis on security, budgeting for additional security guards and mental health support services. The budget for buildings and grounds staff, comprised of custodial workers, security guards and maintenance workers, was increased by 7.5 percent for 2018-19.

The district’s stated budgeting goal based on its public presentation provided by Assistant Superintendent for Business Susan Casali is to “develop a school district budget that is taxpayer sensitive and aligns with the district student learning objectives.”

Casali will be publicly presenting the adopted budget a total of six times, with Saturday, April 21, at JFK Middle School at 9 a.m. being the next opportunity for district residents to catch it.

The bond proposal and list of projects came at the recommendation of the district’s Facilities Committee, a group of 21 professionals from across the Comsewogue community including members of the board, administrators, architects, engineers, former teachers and civic association members assembled in early January and tasked with presenting recommendations to the board. It will need to be approved as a separate proposition from the standard 2018-19 operating budget.

“The proposed facility improvements preserve the integrity of the school buildings, address repairs, improve instructional resources for all and upgrade athletic facilities,” district administration said in a statement.

Budget

2018-19 total: $91,947,730

2.2% tax levy increase

3.2% more in state aid

School board President John Swenning said during a March meeting the bond proposal was the result of hard work and community input.

“I just want to say thank you to the Facilities Committee that spent a lot of time going through our buildings,” he said. “This bond was brought to us from the community members. They found what they felt needs to be addressed and they came and presented it to the board. We’re going to accept it just as the committee has submitted it to us.”

The district has made a concerted effort to inform voters about the contents of the bond, filming and disseminating an informational YouTube video featuring Superintendent Joe Rella, mailing brochures to residents, and hosting several public presentations at district buildings as well as before the Port Jefferson Station/Terryville Civic Association.

Some of the projects include required upgrades to achieve compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act; repairing parking lots and sidewalks; adding security vestibules at all of the district buildings; fixes to exterior and interior building infrastructure; improving athletic fields and facilities; and kitchen upgrades. Some of the higher-priced projects included in the committee’s recommendation are: a new roof with solar panels at Terryville Road Elementary School; interior work at John F. Kennedy Middle School, including some classroom and hallway renovations; and upgrades to the high school concession stand building. If passed, the average taxpayer would see an increase of about $120 annually to their school tax bill, according to the district.

District hoping for details on Brookhaven, LIPA settlement before finalizing 2018-19 spending plan

Superintendent Paul Casciano and board president, Kathleen Brennan, listen to members of the public during an April 10 board of education meeting. Photos by Alex Petroski

An announcement by Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) April 3 was supposed to provide clarity, but it has done anything but.

Romaine announced during his State of the Town address Brookhaven had reached a settlement with the Long Island Power Authority, which would end the legal battle being waged since 2010 regarding the assessed valuation and property tax bill the public utility has been paying on its Port Jefferson power plant. While in the midst of preparing its 2018-19 budget, Port Jefferson School District officials said in a statement they were caught off guard by the announcement and, as a result, the board of education moved to delay
adopting its proposed budget during a meeting April 10. The board will hold a special meeting April 18, when the budget will be presented before a vote to adopt. School budgets must be submitted to New York State no later than April 20.

“We don’t know what the terms of that agreement are — as a matter of fact, there is no agreement.”

— Paul Casciano

“When you plan to make reductions, you need to know how much to reduce,” Superintendent Paul Casciano said during the meeting. “That is the problem with what the town announced, because essentially what the town announced was that they reached a tentative deal. We don’t know what the terms of that agreement are — as a matter of fact, there is no agreement. That’s what we have learned. There are a lot of things that have been talked about at the town level. We have been spending a lot of time trying to find out what the details are.”

Town spokesman Kevin Molloy refuted Casciano’s claim that a deal is not in place.

“We have an agreement in principle, it has not been finalized or signed,” he said in a phone interview. “The town has sought state aid as part of this agreement. This state aid was not included in the recently adopted budget. We are continuing to work with LIPA for a settlement to this case that is fair for our residents and uses any funds from this settlement to reduce electrical charges to ratepayers.”

The town has not shared details about the agreement in principle publicly.

Casciano was asked by resident Rene Tidwell during the April 10 meeting if the district had long-range plans to address the likelihood it will be losing a chunk of the annual revenue the district receives as a result of the power plant’s presence within the district.

“I’m deeply concerned that this potentially devastating issue has not been more proactively addressed in the years since it was first initiated,” Tidwell said during the public comment period of the meeting.

Casciano strongly pushed back against the idea the issue hasn’t been a top priority for the board and administration.

“We have an agreement in principle, it has not been finalized or signed.”

— Kevin Molloy

“The plan is very simple — you cut staff, which results in cutting programs,” he said, though he also put the onus on residents to prepare for possible future tax increases. “There comes a time where it’s not all going to be the school district
cutting programs and cutting staff. At some point, taxpayers — and it may be this year — are going to see an increase in their taxes. We don’t assess. The town assesses. The village assesses.”

Board president, Kathleen Brennan, also disagreed with the idea the board has not been prepared to deal with the LIPA situation.

“I’ve been a board member for eight years,” she said. “Going back those eight years on that board and every subsequent board, this board has addressed the issue head on and has done things that you haven’t read about on our website.”

Board member Vincent Ruggiero first motioned to remove budget adoption from the BOE agenda.

“Given the uncertainty and the fact we don’t have a clear answer from Brookhaven, we have a week that we can adopt this budget, I’m just proposing that we wait as long as we can for some type of response, although we probably won’t get one, and hold the vote next week,” he said.

The public portion of the special April 18 meeting of the BOE will begin at 6:30 p.m.

The Comsewogue library budget passed April 10. File photo

Port Jefferson-area residents have weighed in on how their public libraries spend money.

The public voted to pass operating budgets for the 2018-19 fiscal year for Port Jefferson Free Library and Comsewogue Public Library April 10. Port Jefferson School District residents passed the PJFL budget with 139 voting in favor and 17 opposed. Comsewogue district taxpayers approved their library’s 2018-19 spending plan 98-12.

Port Jefferson Free Library

PJFL voters approved a spending plan with modest increases from the 2017-18 fiscal year. The total budget for the upcoming year will be $4,419,062, up less than $200,000 compared to the current year. According to the library’s informational newsletter on the budget sent to residents’ homes, the increase will cost taxpayers roughly 87 cents more per month on average compared to this year. About $60,000 additional dollars for operating expenses will come from property taxes, bringing the total tax levy to $3,099,391.

“Once again, we are honored to have such support from our community,” PJFL Director Tom Donlon said in an email.

The Port Jefferson Free Library is at the corner of Thompson and East Main streets. File photo

The library is currently in the process of purchasing Kanopy, a streaming video service featuring documentaries, classic films, “blockbuster movies” and more, according to the newsletter, in addition to ongoing renovation plans.

Comsewogue Public Library

CPL needs about $165,000 more in 2018-19 to cover operating expenses compared to this fiscal year. The total budget is $5,720,785, with taxpayers being asked to contribute about $7 more on average annually on top of their existing tax bill.

“We work hard all year to earn the public’s approval and support,” CPL Director Debbie Engelhardt said in an email. “We’re constantly collecting, discussing and putting into play comments and ideas from library members of all ages. Feedback from the community helps us continually move the library’s service program forward. The public’s steadfast support of the operating budget means we can keep learning and growing together. We can introduce new collections and services while maintaining popular, more traditional ones. This operating budget assures we can continue to give people what they want from their public library.”

Kevin Spence, CPL’s incumbent president on the board of trustees, was elected to a new five-year term. He was appointed to fill a vacancy on the board about three years ago, according to thelibrary’s website. The 56-year Port Jefferson Station resident ran unopposed.

The children's section of the Port Jefferson Free Library. File photo by Heidi Sutton

Port Jefferson-area residents are scheduled to weigh in on how its public libraries spend money.

The public vote on operating budgets for the 2018-19 fiscal year at Port Jefferson Free Library and Comsewogue Public Library is April 10. Port Jefferson School District residents can vote on the PJFL budget at the library, located at 100 Thompson Street, from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Comsewogue School District residents can cast ballots on the library’s grounds, 170 Terryville Road, from 9:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Port Jefferson Free Library

PJFL is asking voters to approve a spending plan with modest increases from the 2017-18 fiscal year. If passed, the total budget for the upcoming year would be $4,419,062, up less than $200,000 compared to the current year. According to the library’s informational newsletter on the budget sent to resident’s homes, the increase would cost taxpayers roughly 87 cents more per month on average compared to this year. About $60,000 additional dollars for operating expenses would come from property taxes, bringing the total tax levy to $3,099,391.

The Comsewogue library budget is up for a vote tomorrow. File photo

“For pennies more a week, you can ensure the library will continue to be a vital contributor to the village’s quality of life,” the budget mailer reads, asking residents to vote “yes.”

The library is currently in the process of purchasing Kanopy, a streaming video service featuring documentaries, classic films, “blockbuster movies,” and more, according to the newsletter, in addition to ongoing renovation plans.

Comsewogue Public Library

CPL needs about $165,000 more in 2018-19 to cover operating expenses compared to this fiscal year. The total budget, if passed, would be $5,720,785, with taxpayers being asked to contribute about $7 more on average annually on top of their existing tax bill.

“The 2018-19 proposed operating budget is designed to ensure that the library continues to provide a high-quality service program at a reasonable cost,” Comsewogue’s budget brochure said.

Kevin Spence, CPL’s current president on the board of trustees, is up for re-election to a new five-year term. He was appointed to fill a vacancy on the board about three years ago, according to the library’s website. The 56-year Port Jefferson Station resident is running unopposed.

Shoreham-Wading River school district Superintendent Gerard Poole, second from left, and the board of education. Photo by Kevin Redding

The board of education was met with loud cheers and a round of applause for its decision March 27.

Shoreham-Wading River school district added pre-kindergarten classes in its initial 2018-19 budget, but after receiving backlash from parents, the board unanimously voted to remove it from the plans.

“I’m a firm believer in early childhood education,” said Shoreham resident Megan Rowick, who said she attended the March 20 meeting in favor of the idea, but that her feelings quickly changed. “There are great benefits for social, emotional and cognitive development, and while not mandated by New York State I feel that pre-K is a gift.”

She explained what changed her mind.

“I absolutely support public education and I am a big proponent of a pre-K program in Shoreham-Wading River. But it’s our job not to push our own agenda, and I hear what the community is saying and want to make a decision based on that.”

— Erin Hunt

“When I saw the plans I immediately had concerns, and I know I’m not alone,” said the pre-K, kindergarten and first-grade teacher, whose son and 3-year-old daughter will have gone through pre-K programs. “Why wasn’t the community surveyed to see who has children that will be 4 years old before Dec. 1 and who would be interested in this pre-K program? It would have been helpful to gather information prior to this, then you would know how many sections you really need, or who would choose our program.”

The board of education announced at its March 20 meeting the plan was to include the addition of part-time pre-K classes into the district’s $74,776,072 budget draft. To fund the proposed program and avoid piercing the tax levy increase cap while keeping at the current 0.9 percent increase budget-to-budget, $270,000 in contingent funds was worked into the draft. Kindergarten class sizes would have increased at Miller Avenue School to clear classrooms for the program.

Residents questioned if the district had done sufficient research.

Wading River resident Robin Heavey said she was concerned, since the program was set to begin with an expectation of declining district enrollment, that if the trend were to reverse, the larger class sizes would place a burden on the teachers and their students.

“I do not think it is fair to those children, especially at such a tender age when they are learning reading and mathematics and things that require such attention from teachers, to put them in a situation where they are increasing their numbers for a non-essential and a non-required program,” she said.

Colette Grosso agreed that there’s no crystal ball for what enrollment would look like, and added she would prefer to see the money spent elsewhere.

“When you say the money could be used for this [pre-K] program or things that come up as needed, I’m just wondering why some of our needs over the past couple of years have not been addressed,” the Shoreham mother said. “We’ve had two suicides, I can’t even quantify how many suicide attempts we’ve had, several of which have been this year.  You’ve got kids in the hospital for anxiety, eating disorders, all kinds of things — with the current climate, don’t we think security and mental health staff would be the best use of this money?”

Wading River resident Nick Gallucci pointed out the elected representatives on the board campaigned on a message of financial responsibility last year. He asked the board if pre-K would not just be economically feasible now, but five years from now.

“I think pre-K is an essential element to a child’s education,” he said, adding his two children have gone to pre-K through a private organization in Wading River. “My belief right now is that this is getting rushed to get passed when there is a general distrust in the district’s spending habits. Tying pre-K into a budget in a rushed manner regardless of the negative tax cap only fosters that district and strays far for the 2017 hashtag #RestoreTheFaith.”

The 17-year public education high school teacher pointed out how last year’s budget just passed with a close 1,112-992 vote and said while he originally indented to stand up in front of the board and ask that pre-K be a separate proposition in the budget vote, he understood it is no longer an option after the district decided it would be packaged within the budget. He said, looking at the issue like a patchwork quilt — trying to do a lot with a little — he now sides with those who wanted pre-K removed from the budget.

“My belief right now is that this is getting rushed to get passed when there is a general distrust in the district’s spending habits.”

— Nick Gallucci

“My fear is heading into this budget that they are going to vote on one issue, and I don’t want my child’s education within this district being jeopardized by a program that is already existing within this community,” he said. “Perhaps our focus should be on things that cannot be replicated.”

Board of education president Robert Rose agreed that while no one could argue with the merits of a pre-K program, the process left much to be desired.

“Why the rush?” he asked before then asking the board if it was unanimous in removing the item from the budget. “The board should give the same about of time to pre-K like we are the future of the Briarcliff building. Are we really prepared? We’re putting the horse before the cart.”

Rose said Superintendent Gerard Poole recommended to the board on three separate occasions to hold off including pre-K in the budget — that it wasn’t the best fit this year. Rose said Poole also made the recommendation the board take the next six months to work with the community on the idea.

“We want to make sure it’s the most transparent process possible,” he said.

Trustee Erin Hunt, who proposed the idea after hearing the desire for a program from other residents, personally agreeing, said she appreciated the feedback and is thankful that the past two meetings people had shown up.

“I wish the conversation went differently — I absolutely support public education and I am a big proponent of a pre-K program in Shoreham-Wading River,” she said. “But it’s our job not to push our own agenda, and I hear what the community is saying and want to make a decision based on that. To potentially sacrifice the negative levy for a program I personally believe in I think is a mistake. I would never want a budget, especially this one, which is an outstanding budget, to fail.”

Commack Superintendent Donald James presented the district's 2018-19 budget draft. File photo by Greg Catalano

Status quo will reign in Commack, with a few new programs.

Commack Superintendent Donald James unveiled the first part of his proposed budget for the 2018-19 school year during a March 9 board of education meeting, which would maintain all existing instructional programs intact across each school.

The preliminary budget of $193,222,797 is roughly 1.61 percent higher than the current year’s budget, which was adopted at $190,163,464. The first budget workshop focused on general administration support and instructional spending — which, combined, make up a total 57 percent of the entire budget.

Budget highlights:
  • 2018-19 proposed budget 1.61 percent higher than current year
  • All instructional programs rolled over from current year, with several additions
  • Tax levy increase to be between 2.51 percent and 2.91 percent, though cap won’t need to be pierced
  • Total budget proposed for 2018-19 stands at $193,222,797 currently

The district plans on keeping programs such as Movement in the Arts, an exercise-educational program for students in kindergarten through fifth grade that was introduced last year. New curriculum would include more art and technology class options for sixth-graders, like digital animation and 3D printing; TerraNova learning assessment for students in Kindergarten through fifth grade; and Investigations in the Humanities, principles of engineering, American sign language, horticulture and school and community leadership for high school students.

“Our aim in Commack is to prepare every student for whatever they want and need to achieve at their next level of learning while simultaneously maintaining and enhancing the educational program and academic achievement, as we define it, that Commack is known for and the community expects,” James said at the top of the presentation.

The budget is expected to stay within the tax levy increase cap, according to Laura Newman, assistant superintendent for business and operations. The projected tax levy increase in the budget draft is currently 2.51 percent, with a tax-cap increase of no more than 2.91 percent.

“I say that because there are sometimes budgetary decisions that are made that will change the tax cap formula and calculation,” Newman said of the wide-ranging projection.

Moving forward, district officials said they hope to deal with “the misperception” that the tax levy increase cap is two percent and make clear a 2.51 percent increase for Commack does not constitute piercing the cap.

“I don’t know any district in the Huntington-Smithtown cluster that has the two-percent number,” James said. “While Newsday’s and [Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s] perception is that it’s two, it’s not two.”

The 2018-19 budget’s slight increase over last year’s adopted budget is based primarily on instruction costs — more staffing, contractual increases and changes, a plan for a renewed enrollment projection report, districtwide technology upgrades and special education program enhancements. There is also a proposed hike in guidance, psychological and health services due to contractual changes. The total instruction budget will be $4,626,905 more than last year’s, up to $110,535,346.

The overall general support, which represents 11 percent of the budget and includes an increase in insurance and public information and services, is increasing by $499,873.

“We’ve worked very hard to come up with a budget that will keep us within tax cap but maintain our programs, which is, luckily, what we’ve been able to do,” Amy Ryan, assistant superintendent for curriculum, instruction, assessment and student support services, said. “It’s sort of a boring budget in the sense that there are no big enhancements and, happily, no cuts. We have a very supportive community so it should be good.”

The school board will meet for its second budget workshop March 15, to discuss athletics, facilities, security, transportation, technology, staffing and undistributed costs, like retirement. The public will vote on the budget May 15.

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Asking for money is uncomfortable. In our daily lives, needing to borrow some cash here or there isn’t a request that rolls off the tongue easily for most.

Since New York State implemented a 2 percent property tax levy cap in June 2011, school districts have been asking taxpayers to consider a referendum for additional spending cash more and more frequently. Boards of education have been required to get creative in trying to get done essential facility improvements to keep buildings and programs vibrant, and to engender high level academics, athletics and artistic performances for as many students as possible.

It’s admittedly not an easy job keeping a school district flourishing while being required to raise tax revenue by no more than 2 percent from year to year, especially in cases where contractual raises or benefit cost increases blow past the cap to begin with. If asking to borrow a couple of dollars here and there from friends or family is an awkward task requiring tact and humility, school districts should be approaching it the same way.

A common thread for bonds voted down by taxpayers in our coverage area in recent years has been a cry for more transparency and community involvement in every step of the process, from compiling lists of projects to be addressed to trimming that list down to the actual appearance of a bond on a ballot.

We found it refreshing to sit in Feb. 12 on the public bond presentation of Comsewogue School District, based in Port Jefferson Station. Although it hadn’t been decided if a proposition will ultimately end up on the ballot in May, making it impossible to know if its strategy will be effective in getting a bond referendum passed at this time, what we do know is that a lack of community involvement or input will never be a charge hurled at Comsewogue.

Since early January, the district’s facilities committee, a group made up of professionals from a wide cross section of the community, has been meeting and deliberating about what projects it would ultimately recommend the board of education considers, including in a bond proposal. If the board goes forward with holding a referendum, members of the board have asked the committee, which includes engineers, architects and civic association leaders, remain involved in every step of the process going forward. John Swenning, board president, said it wouldn’t make sense for the board to ignore the expertise, passion and smarts that could be offered by each of the committee members throughout the process. This is how asking for money should be handled.

It seems like in many cases capital bond propositions are assembled and presented to the community in that order, and public hearings and discussions that follow are just a formality — being held only to meet state-mandated requirements.

District’s seeking permission from communities to borrow large sums of money over long periods of time should approach the ask by doing just that, informing residents on ways their moneys need to be expended, and asking them how in other ways they’d like to see their dollars spent.

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