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school budget

Superintendent Gerard Poole speaks to residents about the survey results. Photo by Kyle Barr

The Shoreham-Wading River Central School District is trying to gauge its long-term future with community, teacher and student feedback.

The district has surveyed district residents to help determine which school functions are doing well and which need to be improved. This data was especially important, Wading River Elementary School Principal Lou Parrinello said, because of expectations over declining enrollment.

“They’re putting it out there because the district is shrinking in enrollment,” Parrinello said. “This shows what we want to hold dear, what we want to expand and what we want to let go. We don’t want to make those decisions in isolation.”

That loss of students could then mean a loss of revenue for the school over a period of several years, along with shrinking class sizes and potentially less specialized electives available. Superintendent Gerard Poole said the district has already hosted forums with teachers and students of all grade levels.

“They’re putting it out there because the district is shrinking in enrollment.”

— Lou Parrinello

In a special focus group meeting Feb. 26, the district asked residents to present their own ideas for where the district should head in the next five years.

In the survey, close to 1,000 residents rated where the strongest and weakest elements of the district were. On the negative end, 47 percent of those surveyed said the cafeteria programs needed improvement. While the high school cafeteria remains as it is, the district has used funds from a bond passed in 2015 to create a new kitchen and cafeteria spaces in both the Wading River Elementary School and Albert G. Prodell Middle School. The district plans to renovate the cafeteria with the ongoing bond funds this summer.

A number of teachers, parents and even some students were present to speak about the issues they see with the school, with some noting a lack of proper communication with parents and students, especially over social media.

Karla Roberts, a fourth-grade teacher in the district, said the schools need to look toward standing out among the flock of other districts on Long Island. She was especially disappointed to learn how some seniors in the high school, because they were already at the mandated amount of class credits they needed to graduate, were coming in late during the school day and leaving early.

“It’s making sure all students have something, and [the school] should be tracking if students are in sports, clubs electives, or not,” Roberts said.

High school senior Katie Loscalzo said there is a disconnect between the guidance counselors and the students, especially in guaranteeing there is interest for students in varying classes. She noted she is currently in an Advanced Placement course with only seven students and is taking an elective with only four enrolled.

“We don’t have those guidance relationships,” the senior said.

The district conducted an enrollment study in 2015, which was updated for the 2017-18 school year. The study predicted the district will recede to 1,650 enrolled students by 2025, compared to its current enrollment of 2,264. Along with a declining birthrate and an aging population, the district has in the past pointed to low housing turnover from 2008 to 2016 for part of its ebbing enrollment figures. 

“We don’t have those guidance relationships.”

— Katie Loscalzo

This fact brings a call for strategic developments of new school budgets. At its Feb. 26 meeting, the district revealed a preliminary proposed budget of $75,952,416, approximately a million more than the current year’s budget of $74,776,072 and below the current year’s tax cap of 2.96 percent.

Also represented in the budget is a 3.69 percent drop in state aid funding, based on projections of the New York State budget proposed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D).

In the continuing work of the 2015 bond, the district outlined a number of projects for the upcoming summer, including renovating the high school theater lighting and dimming system, a full reconstruction of the main parking lot, a renovation and expansion of the existing kitchen and serving line and a reconfiguration of the office spaces within the center corridor. The board awarded bids to a number of contractors for that work at the Feb. 26 meeting.

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Mount Sinai School District's board of education during its March 8 meeting. File Photo Photo by Kyle Barr

By David Luces

The Mount Sinai School District is looking at a budget that could see a decrease in debt services and changes to school textbooks and special education.

The district continued its presentation of its proposed 2019-20 school budget at a district board meeting Feb.13. Between the January and February presentation, the district has shown approximately 23 percent of the budget, which is just about $13 million out of the $62.5 million proposed total budget for the next school year. 

At the February meeting, after hearing the needs from parents, the board said it is supporting the recommendation to make the Consultant Teacher Direct Instructor program full day for children in grades 1 through 4 in the elementary school. CTD instructors provide services and support students with disabilities in his or her general education classes. This would increase the special education budget to $4.3 million, $98,780 more than the previous school year.

“It will align with the full-day program at the middle school,” Superintendent Gordon Brosdal said. “To create that [at the elementary school] it would take the hiring of two special education teachers.”

District officials said they will examine class size and registration to figure out how many teachers they would need overall. In addition to the planned full-day program, the teachers will be supplied with additional textbooks. 

“This is a pretty big add,” the superintendent said. “But we believe this is the best for our kids and what their needs are.”

“We believe this is the best for our kids and what their needs are.”

— Gordon Brosdal

Officials also stressed the need to replace older textbooks in the middle and high school. The district would be replacing sixth-grade algebra II textbooks, replacing middle school science textbooks, seventh- and eighth-grade English books along with social studies textbooks. 

The superintendent said that some of the textbooks in the middle and high school are over 20 years old. The total for the new textbooks will cost the district $75,550.

“[With the newer textbooks] everything is accessible online,” he said. “You could have the lesson in class and then see it again
at home.”

In conjunction with newer textbooks, the board will also renew IXL site licenses, which is a platform that offers students K-12 educational practice outside the classroom.

“We have seen many students use this —we are reacting to the popularity and use it,” Robert Sweeney, president of the Mount Sinai board of education said. “When students go home they can go through lesson plans, online help — it is helping them do better in
their classes.”

A highlight of the Jan. 16 meeting was the announcement of a 25-year-old bond loan that is expected to be paid off in full at the end of the year. 

“This is good news for us,” Brosdal said. “Finally, that bond on the high school that we got years ago to borrow money will be paid off this year.”

With the bond being paid off, the school district is projected to see a decrease of close to $1 million in debt services. 

The next budget presentation will take place on March 20 at 8 p.m. in Mount Sinai Middle School. Topics of discussion will be operations, maintenance, grounds/security, athletics,
salaries and benefits.

Northport-East Northport Superintendent Robert Banzer. Photo by Victoria Espinoza

By David Luces

Northport school administrators gave taxpayers their first glimpse at what potential issues the district will face as it starts to draft its 2019-20 budget.

Superintendent Robert Banzer gave his first overview of the Northport-East Northport school district’s preliminary budget for 2019-20 at the Jan. 24 board of education meeting. The highlights includes two large expenses to the district are expected to decrease based on his initial calculations, but the schools have a different challenge to contend with.

“I’m glad to see that the TRS went down and health insurance is less. Those two things escalated on us last year — and that was a challenge,”

— Robert Banzer

The superintendent said the district’s state-mandated employer contribution to the Teacher Retirement System is anticipated to drop from 10.62 down to somewhere between 9.5 and 8.5 percent, and health care insurance premiums are projected to decrease. 

“I’m glad to see that the TRS went down and health insurance is less,” he said. “Those two things escalated on us last year — and that was a challenge.”

For 2019-20, Banzer explained the district will be permitted to raise taxes by up to 3.22 percent and remain with the state-mandated tax cap. The number can raise above the often cited 2 percent for numerous reasons including tax-base growth and rollover from prior years.

The superintendent said the district’s officials will be mindful of trying to draft a budget that comes in at or below the cap.

“Potentially it will be 3.22 percent, but I hope that it is less and we save taxpayers some money,” trustee David Badanes said.

The district’s budget for the current year is $166,810,381. According to the superintendent, the budget amount has increased by around 1.5 percent each year since the 2013-14 school year. Over half the budget is attributed to personnel’s salaries, about a quarter of it is attributed to employee benefits, according to Banzer. 

Each year, the district’s budget is financed 80 percent through the district’s tax levy, which for the 2018-19 school year totaled approximately $146,0000. About 10 percent of the district’s revenue comes in the form of state aid, the district is currently projected to receive more than $16 million based on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) 2019 Executive Budget. Banzer noted that it is only a projected number, and one he hopes could be higher once the actual budget is passed.

There’s work to be done in between. There’s going to be opportunities for input.”

— Robert Banzer

One challenge the school district must face is how to deal with the continued declining enrollment. The superintendent projected the schools have lost nearly 1,165 students since the 2011-12 school year. 

“That’s pretty significant, a lot of it has been in the elementary level,” Banzer said. “Things are starting to level off there but now it seems like it is coming to the secondary level.”

Each year, the district’s budget is financed 80 percent through the district’s tax levy, which for the 2018-19 school year totaled approximately $146,0000.

The next Northport school board meeting dedicated to the 2019-20 budget overview will be March 7 at 7 p.m. in the William J. Brosnan School Building, located at 158 Laurel Ave. The district has approximately four months to refine the budget before the vote slated for May 21.

“There’s work to be done in between,” the superintendent said. “There’s going to be opportunities for input.”

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As we sit crunching numbers for 2018-19 proposed school budgets, we can’t help but wonder how many parents and taxpayers are paying attention. We already know the answer — not enough.

School taxes make up more than 60 percent of the average homeowner’s property taxes in Suffolk County, according to a 2017 analysis done by ATTOM Data Solutions, a real-estate information firm. Despite this fact, voter turnout for school budgets remains dreadfully low year after year.

In May 2017, the ballots cast by a mere 412 people determined how Port Jefferson School District would spend its more than $43 million to educate about 1,000 enrolled students. Now, its taxpayers face coming to terms with a settlement of Long Island Power Authority’s lawsuit over the tax assessment of the power plant and what it might mean for their wallets.

To cast an educated vote May 15 on your district’s proposed 2018-19 school budget is a test of every Long Island taxpayer. There’s a little more than a week left, so start studying.

Ever since the Parkland, Florida, high school shooting Feb. 14, this year has been marked by tense debates between students, parents and school administrators over school safety. On March 14, Rocky Point High School students participated in the National School Walkout despite knowing they would face in-school suspension. These students brought their dissension to the board of education trustees. Elections for these vital positions are held annually during the budget vote. Unfortunately, only 909 people in Rocky Point voted in 2017 on who would be determining if the students’ punishment was fair.

The most direct way to make changes in a school district’s policy is to vote and become involved. The elected trustees on a board of education participate in the lowest form of government, smaller than the town or county government, but that shouldn’t reflect on the importance of the job. By running and winning a seat on the board, one can propose changes to a school district’s security measures or educational policies. This civic involvement is vital to bringing about change.

Yet all too often board of education races have little to no contest. The board of education trustee races tend to have even fewer ballots cast than the annual budget.

If Long Islanders want to be a force of change behind the factors creating high property taxes and have a say on poignant issues like school security, get out and vote. Ask questions of your board of education candidates to find out where they stand. Attend budget presentations to see exactly how your tax dollars are being spent. The polls will be open Tuesday, May 15. Take five minutes while dropping off or picking up your child from school to cast your ballot. It can make a difference in their education, and then you too can say you’ve done your homework.

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

Port Jeff Superintendent Paul Casciano and board President Kathleen Brennan. File 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.

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