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Proposed 2017-18 School Budget Scrutinized

magnifying-glass-2Scarsdale Board of Education's third Budget Study Session for the 2017-2018 school year took place on Monday, March 6th with detailed reviews of all relevant departments' proposals and careful questioning from the Board regarding expenditures both large and small.

So what's the big picture as of last Monday? That's a budget-to-budget increase of 2.56% which would result in a projected increase in tax levy of 1.40%, which is fortunately below the projected tax cap, as detailed below:

draft budget

 The following chart gives a more detailed look at the increases and decreases that come together to make up this total budget. Notably, staffing expenditures are up as Scarsdale Schools approach once more the staffing levels that were customary prior to the financial crisis. That expense, however, is largely offset this year by substantial savings due to decreased needs in employee pension funding:

reconciled expnese

 



Mandarin is a Go for SMS!

The most warmly welcomed news of the evening came when Lynn Shain, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum, Assessment, and Instruction, announced that the time during which parents may opt for "zero period" Mandarin for their rising 6th graders had just concluded with 42 students on board. To accommodate this number of students, the budget now contains funding for two instructors to be hired at a 0.2 level each at a total cost of approximately $40,000. Board President Lee Maude noted that it had been a long time in coming but that she hoped the new Mandarin option would "grow roots."

Did You Know???

Here's an arresting fact: district custodial staff clean nearly 900,000 square feet of building space daily! Next year that square footage will increase as the new spaces under construction at the Middle and High Schools come into use, and that means 2 additional custodial hires, at a cost of $92,000.

The additional spaces come with other costs as well. They'll need new cabling installed to accommodate technology ($175,000) and furniture and other equipment ($250,000) in the new SMS orchestra room, and High School Innovation Lab and Learning Commons.

Administrative Demands

One proposed change involving new costs is to reclassify the Teacher-in-Charge positions at the elementary schools as Assistant Principals, i.e. no longer teachers but administrators with a different salary structure. This reflects the changing requirements of the job, which has become more demanding and administrative in nature, according to Drew Patrick, Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources and Leadership Development. The new position would involve more work days through the summer, and come with an ongoing projected increased cost of $75,000 for the five individuals.

Greenacres School in Line for Paint

A line item under Plant Improvement caused some surprise: $70,000 for exterior painting at Greenacres (as well as at Edgewood for $80,000.) School Board member Arthur Rublin twice circled back to this item, asking "Since we're in process with Greenacres, couldn't the paint be deferred for one year while the plan develops?" Stuart Mattey, Assistant Superintendent for Business and Facilities, replied that even should the plan develop for a new school instead of renovation, that would be several years down the road. "The paint has been deferred for a number of years, and the building will be in use for some time."

What Price Sustainability?

Although not large within the overall budget, another item which drew Board scrutiny was $60,000 under Curricular Development set aside for future sustainability efforts, as yet undetermined, following on the installment of the Rocket Composter. Board members Art Rublin and Nina Cannon both questioned the necessity, with Ms. Cannon wondering whether the PTA's could take on some sustainability funding instead.

Teen Center:

Noticeably absent from the proposed school budget was the $65,000 for the Teen Center, which is funded jointly by the School and Village Boards. At a joint meeting of the two boards prior to the school board meeting on March 6 members of both boards discussed their views on continuing to finance the center. Village Trustee Marc Samwick told the school board, "We understand it's not now in your budget. We are concerned as well. We are also stewards of tax dollars. While we are supportive of teens and safe places can this programming be absorbed elsewhere?" School Board member Nina Cannon added, "It was initially supported because it was a student led initiative and there was real engagement from the student body. Now I am unsure if there is real interest among students. We should solicit feedback from students to see if there are using it – and if it wasn't there – where they would go? I am not discounting the value of the program and the effort – but I would like to know if our students and our community think this is needed." Village Trustee Matt Callaghan said, "I have visited it and found the doors locked. The Teen Center is over funded and under utilized. I think the funds are ill spent. I would like to give Scarsdale Family Counseling two more counselors instead."

However Village Trustee Bill Stern continued to support the Teen Center. He said, "To argue that money goes to family counseling instead is not good. It's like saying – wait for the kid to get into trouble and then we'll help them. The Teen Center is a tool that's available to help kids avoid drugs. If you save one kid it's worth the money." Carl Finger agreed. He said, "We gave them guidance and they made substantial progress. We are guilty of lukewarm support. It is hard to grow an organization this way."

School Board President spoke of other budget priorities. She said, "This is my fourth year on the board and it feels like we're kicking the can down the road each year.
We have a lot of capital expenditures, and we're increasing staff. These funds could go to a reading teacher that could help a lot of kids."

At the school board meeting that followed, speaking about the Teen Center, Board Member Art Rublin said, "It is a difficult issue but I don't think the school district has a role to play in the Teen Center in 2017. I don't think it makes sense for the district to spend monies on a center we have no relationship with."

Financial Strategy

While some proposed expenditures drew questions, overall the School Board found plenty to praise in this third Draft Budget. Money spent on the proposed additional Reading Specialists at each elementary were "well justified" in Mr. Rublin's view, and Ms. Maude approved of them as well. Board Member Chris Morin supported initiatives to bring capabilities in-house, such as the $63,000 earmarked to fund the Metamorphosis program, which would train certain of our own elementary teachers to be math instruction leaders within each school, reducing the use of outside math consultants from 3 to 1.

As the Budget Study drew to a close, the discussion trended towards the best financial strategy going forward. Both Ms. Maude and Board Vice President Bill Natbony noted that with the very significant savings in pension costs at this time, there was the opportunity to address needs that might go unfunded in a less favorable year. Mr. Morin expressed caution about recurring expenses, and also drew attention to the fact that the biggest line item in the budget was the contracted extension of the school day, which was decided in contract negotiations and lies outside of the budget process currently under review. As the discussion wrapped up, Superintendent Dr. Thomas Hagerman spoke in support of his 10-15 year plan: "Every year we will need to accomplish some of the plan in our yearly budget, but there shouldn't be a lot of surprises if we follow the plan. We're trying to get away from surprises."

You can watch the meeting in it's entirety here. The fourth Budget Session is scheduled for Monday, March 13 at 6:30 pm

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