Half-day kindergarten, busing and building use were among the topics discussed Wednesday night at the budget workshop. But the underlying theme, sometimes subtle but often overt, was a push for the teachers union to agree to cuts.
Declining revenue and increasing costs are squeezing the district as it prepares a budget for school board adoption on April 4 and a vote by residents on May 15. The district needs to find cuts of $3.7 million to meet the state tax limits and fund the district's existing programs.
Driving the budget problems is the state cap on the tax levy, which is the amount of funding a school district needs to raise through property taxes to balance its budget. Some costs, such as bond debt service, are not covered by the cap.
Superintendent Thomas Shea led the presentation of numbers and the push for cuts at Wednesday's meetings, though some of his numbers were challenged at different points.
Shea, who is retiring this year, delivered an impassioned plea about the impact of the cap.
"I think every one of these is unacceptable," he said. "I do not want to end my career here taking things apart." Listing the job losses over the last three years, Shea said, "Last year it was the high school that got a hit; this year it might be the elementary. I know it’s hurt employees. And it’s not going to stop.
"Albany completely refuses to recognize that if you want to cut your budget you have to make service cuts.
"They never talk about program and service cuts; they talk about tax cap and property taxes but they never talk about the price one has to pay. We can’t fund the things we are currently doing unless we have more local control. Last year we did away with a 9-period day, as self imposed tax cap.
"We can certainly have everything we have now –we just have to have a 9-11 percent tax increase. That’s the tradeoff."
Eliminating full-day kindergarten would lead to 21 full-time teaching jobs converting to part time positions. Layoffs of teachers at one grade level could lead to a scramble as more senior teachers bump junior colleagues out of other positions.
Shea said one plan under consideration would consolidate kindergarten classes, which would run 2.5 hours a day. Afternoon day-care would be available but be paid for by parents.
As Shea outlined various budget scenarios, members of the audience raised questions, some of which seemed to be aimed more at the teachers union than Shea. One speaker turned to teachers union president Dennis Callahan and said, "Dennis, please...." before continuing his statement to the board.
Another speaker said, "I implore every public employee of the district to consider a hard freeze for the sake of the children and this community."
Ray Spatafora, a security supervisor for the district, urged the board and district unions to find a solution, noting the cuts that some unions had already accepted. His comments were met with loud applause.
Others, while lobbying for retention or restoration of their favorite programs, cited cuts their children are already facing in choosing classes or programs for next year.
One speaker, who said he was a descendant of Silas Wood, complained about the cost of operating the numerous school districts on Long Island and announced he was moving away because of the high costs. Board president Jim Kaden acknowledged the patchwork of districts and said that, were the school districts being set up today, the structure would be different.
Two numbers that came up for challenge were transportation and teacher step increases. Callahan questioned Shea and Karen Occhiogrosso, assistant superintendent for business about their figures. Shea and Callahan agreed to meet Thursday to review the numbers.
Shea also pulled back a slide on bus costs and Brendan Clifford of Huntington Coach presented Patch a letter disputing the district's report on costs of district-owned buses vs. privately owned. Clifford's letter says that his company's plan to privatize several district-owned buses would save the district money and eliminate the need to change bus schedules Shea proposed last week.
Patch will have more on the transportation and teacher issues in the coming days.