There will be no funding for the Northport-East Northport school district’s visual arts chairperson in next year’s proposed $159.6 million spending plan, despite pleas from students and parents to protect a position they claim is key to student arts success.
The majority of school board members backed Interim Superintendent Thomas Caramore’s recommendation to nix funding for the position, currently held by Julia Lang-Shapiro, and to have both the music and visual art departments managed by music chairperson Izzet Mergen — a structure that exists at other school districts, Caramore has said. The board voted to finalize the budget at a special meeting on Wednesday night, where members of the public once again tried to persuade board members to keep Lang-Shapiro’s position intact, or to at least hold off on making a decision until new Superintendent Robert Banzer joined the district next year.
But some members said they were not interested in “kicking the can” down the road, and a majority of the board felt that the arts department would weather the change unscathed.
“What I hear again and again and again is a fear,” Trustee Lori McCue said. “A fear that by making this change the program won’t be the same for the students.”
McCue said that she isn’t in favor of adding the position back into the budget “because I think we can do better than that.” Instead, the district needs to work to make the transition smooth and to ensure arts students continue to get great opportunities.
“I think as a board and a community, we can do this, and I’m willing to try it,” McCue said.
For Trustee David Badanes, the decision to back Caramore came down to logic. He reasoned that other chairpersons at the district manage departments of 30 to 40 teachers, while the visual arts chairperson oversees a department of 14 teachers. Combining arts and music teachers would bring the merged department up to 41 teachers, a more reasonable number to warrant a chairperson, he said.
“Also, it is the teachers and their excellence that gives children opportunities, and I do not believe that our art department, nor our music department, will suffer in any other way,” Badanes said. “So it’s not about the money for me, it’s about clear logic.”
President Julia Binger noted that as the board’s trustees, they are entrusted with taxpayer money and from a financial standpoint, “It’s the right decision.”
Those on the other side of the issue don’t quite see it that way. Trustee Stephen Waldenburg Jr., the lone board member to oppose the consolidation, said he was concerned about the impact on students.
“Several weeks ago I said I thought this idea troubled me and I’m still very concerned,” he said. “And I will be honest with you, I didn’t want this. I think that I’ve heard what people said. They’re very concerned about the program. And that’s what we’re here for. It’s to protect the program for the kids.”
Waldenburg added that if the position is to be removed, the district “must allow for the protection of the program in some form,” such as appointing a special assistant to Mergen, or designating a teacher in charge of arts opportunities.
“We owe it to this community,” he said “We owe it to our children. And we owe it to the history of Northport.”
At the same meeting, the board finalized the district’s 2016-17 budget, which represents a roughly 0.3 percent increase over this year’s spending plan, Assistant Superintendent for Business Kathleen Molander said. The district proposes increasing its tax levy by about 1.3 percent, which is below its state-mandated 1.81 percent cap on its tax levy increase.
The district will receive more state aid than it had anticipated — to the tune of about $800,000 in additional funds, Caramore said. The district will use that money, in part, to spare its reserves — officials had planned to use $506,000 from reserves to reduce the tax levy, but will now substitute that sum with state aid.
The school board also approved a second proposition for May’s ballot, on whether to spend nearly $1.2 million out of the district’s capital reserves on three projects: paving the Northport High School parking lot; replacing lighting in the East Northport Middle School auditorium; and replacing two boilers at Norwood Avenue Elementary School.
The budget already includes $1.95 million in capital projects — replacing three boilers, exterior bleachers and the press box at the high school.
One of the most significant aspects of next year’s budget is the inclusion of full-day kindergarten, a program many parents had sought for years. Two East Northport residents, Eleni Russell and her 4-year-old daughter Sophia Russell, got up to thank the board for adding the program.
“This is one of the faces of hopefully full-day kindergarten next year,” Russell said, with her daughter clinging to her side. Sophia also took the microphone and uttered a small “thank you,” to which the room burst into applause.