School administrators’ fears that the New York State imposed tax cap would decimate the Scarsdale educational program failed to materialize during the planning for the 2012-13 school budget. Instead, the administration and School Board progressed from pondering an $8 million deficit to discussing how much of the district’s ample surplus to allocate toward next year’s budget.
Considering the fiscal challenges that faced the district, this year’s budget process was surprisingly calm. The warm winter contributed to savings in fuel costs, senior teachers retired, reducing salary costs and projected declines in elementary school enrollments for next year allowed for budgeting for decreases in the 2012-13 district payroll.
As a result, it never became necessary to explore programs cuts. Funding for the Scarsdale Teen Center and Scarsdale and Edgemont Family Counseling, which had been examined in prior years were never questioned this year. Elementary school class size limits were a given. When the district learned that capital improvements were exempt from the tax cap, the administration proposed the inclusion of needed repairs and the renovation of the fitness center at the high school. They were even able to include funds to launch a Center for Innovation to explore new uses of technology in the schools. In fact, only two issues inspired heated discourse; one was staffing at the high school where some parents complained of overcrowded classrooms and the other concerned the use of reserves to fund budgets and reduce tax increases.
The community was invited to give their comments on the final proposed school budget at the school board meeting on Wednesday night April 11. School Board President Jill Spieler opened the meeting with news that since the last budget meeting there had been a few changes in projections for next year -- and in the estimated surpluses from this year’s budget. In addition, after receiving high school students’ class requests for next year, it was determined that two additional teacher’s would be needed at the high school, one to teach math and the other, social studies.
The 2012-13 proposed budget already included two unallocated teaching positions and Linda Purvis and Joan Weber recommended that one of these unallocated positions be used at the high school and funding be added to the budget for the second high school teacher.
After some discussion among the Board and Purvis it was determined that the additional funds needed could be taken from the fund balance. Though the additional teacher would add $155,000 to the bottom line, other surpluses from this year’s budget would absorb all but $18,000 of the cost and the majority of the Board felt that this was too small a change to necessitate a revision of the total proposed budget and tax levy.
Therefore, the proposed budget for 2012-13 will be $141,790,579, which is a 2.42% increase over the 2011-12 budget and will translate into a 2.89% increase in the tax levy (3.39% for Scarsdale residents and 2.22% for those in the Mamaroneck strip.)
For those tracking the use of reserve funds, figures distributed at the meeting show that $6,195,354 of reserve funds will be used to fund the 2012-13 budget, representing 4.37% of the total budget. For the 2011-12 budget, $6.867,380 in reserves were used, or 4.96% of the total budget of $138,443,938. Looking back, in 2001-2, when the total school budget was $70,135,119, only $765,000 of reserve funds were used to fund the budget, or 1.09%. The use of reserves hit an all time high in 2011-12 and the Board decided to modestly reduce that amount for next year.
Turning to public comments, Marian Green the Chair of C.H.I.L.D. raised issues of concern to parents of children with special needs. She asked for professional development for staff to learn to make diagnoses, develop special needs curricula and arrange intervention for those who need extra help. She also asked for support of teacher aids who shadow special needs children in class and for more assistance for children who struggle with the district’s demanding curriculum. Furthermore she asked the district to look into how technology can help special needs children learn and suggested that iPads and Smartboards be available. Last, she requested that the Board to look for ways in which special needs children could attend after-school activities designed for all the district’s students. Her comments will be available on the Scarsdale C.H.I.L.D. website.
Mary Beth Evans, Chair of Scarsdale Forum Education (Program) Committee briefly discussed their in-depth report on the Scarsdale Teacher’s Institute which will be presented at the April 26, 2012 meeting of the Scarsdale Forum. The report recommends that the district maintain support for the STI as it “continues to play an integral role in ongoing professional and curriculum development,” and to continue to “provide incentives in line with those of other area districts to encourage participation.”
However, it also asks the Board to consider reductions in recent enrollment rates to ensure that courses meet the learning needs of the staff. The report shows that enrollment is down 50% from 2006-7 to 20010-11. The full report can be viewed on the Scarsdale Forum website.
Amy Scharf of the Scarsdale League of Women Voters said that the League supports the proposed budget and recommends that the community vote yes on Tuesday May 15. She commended the Board for recognizing the need for capital improvements and said that the League supports the fitness center at the high school but cannot take a position on the proposed internet café due to insufficient information at this time. The League also favors including two unassigned teachers in the budget and asked the Board to clarify their policy on class size and teacher load in the middle and high schools. The League urged the Board to continue to lobby lawmakers about new policies on teacher evaluations and unfunded mandates.
Susan Grosz took the mike to express her views on the upcoming negotiations with teacher’s union and the Scarsdale Teacher’s Institute. Though time constraints prevented her from a complete reading of her statement she conveyed her concern about maintaining educational excellence with a sustainable tax rate and fiscal responsibility. She had specific concerns about the Scarsdale Teacher’s Institute, saying, “though it is a small portion of the school budget, there are indirect costs.”
Vivienne Braun, speaking on behalf of the SHS PTA Executive Committee thanked the Board for listening to their concerns about class sizes at the high school and asked the Board to find ways to enhance student-teacher interaction. Referring to the Board’s decision to hire two additional teachers at the high school she said,“Thank you for your willingness to demonstrate concern.”
Art Rublin of the Coalition for Scarsdale Schools referred to the discussion on the use of reserves and the planned surplus. Discussing the original budget proposed by the school administration, Rublin said, “We think that Dr. McGill’s proposal was in line with previous years and past practice. Last year (2011) some had advocated a cut to surplus, but there was strong justification for maintaining current reserve levels.” Turning to the tax cap, he said, “In terms of other districts, at least seven districts in Long Island are looking at overriding the tax cap, supporting the cause of local control across the states. In terms of getting out a strong vote it would be good to have a budget that people can rally about.”
On Monday April 16, the Board will respond to the community's written statements on the budget and adopt the 2012-13 budget and Tax Report Card. The school budget vote and election of School Board members will be held on Tuesday, May 15th.