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BOE Begins New Year with Focus on Bond and Budget

hagerman and orchestra students10 copyOn a frigid night with few members of the public present, Scarsdale's Board of Education's first meeting of 2018 focused largely on money matters, beginning with the district's position on prepayment of taxes and a discussion of the importance of demographic data, followed by promotion of the upcoming district bond vote and a primer on the 2018-19 budget process.

Board President Bill Natbony opened the session by addressing the board's position with regard to prepayment of 2018 school taxes. "The result of the consistent and unambiguous research and advice, and consistent with our fellow school districts that have a July 1 to June 30 budget... was that the board and district lacked the lawful authority, without a community vote with proper notice, to do what is called 'issuing a warrant' or assessment of 2018-19 taxes before the end of last year," he stated. "This was not a result dictated by choice or lack of effort, it was one mandated by law... I hope the community understands that we sympathize and empathize with the impact and unfortunate nature of the tax legislation that we have been compelled to deal with." He also reiterated that Scarsdale Village government was able to issue tax warrants because it is not subject to the same legal requirements as the school district.

Natbony followed up with a reminder about the board's decision to send the much-discussed district bond proposal to voters on February 8. "The bond presents a significant opportunity to invest in the long-term safety, security and infrastructure of all our schools, and an important and overdue renovation of the Greenacres school," he said. Natbony's comments are part of the board's push to communicate the benefits of the bond, which include meetings with residents at upcoming community events and a new "bond website" containing detailed information about the measure.

Natbony concluded his remarks by discussing the recent horrific loss of the Steinberg family. "Above all the issues, discussions, agreements, debates and disagreements... we continue to (value) our importance sense of community and friendship, and recognize the importance of family and volunteerism. The Steinberg family epitomized these important community values and they will be deeply missed."

Superintendent Thomas Hagerman continued the meeting by reviewing district communication policies in light of recent events – the Steinberg tragedy and school closures.

"When we learn about a traumatic event... we work with the affected family to see how we can support them... (and) adhere to the family's wishes with regard to these matters. Moreover, we also assess the students and staff who may be impacted by distressing news and we try to craft appropriate communiqués to these targeted audiences." He continued, "We use the filter of only sharing information about our current students, or something that has a truly exceptional and profound effect on our community, such as what we experienced last week." 
sinfonietta strings 27 copy

Hagerman then switched gears and reviewed the processes involved in determining school delays and closures during inclement weather. Decisions are made after discussions with other local superintendents, and assessment of road conditions with the heads of school facilities and transportation, and local police and fire departments. In cases of a delayed start or school closure, the determination typically is made by 5:30 am; for an early dismissal, it is made by 9:30 am. Further, cancelations of after-school activities (for both students and adults) usually are decided by 1:00 pm.

District Demographics

As the district prepares for coming budget discussions, it is important to look at Scarsdale demographic projections in assessing near- and long-term needs. Assistant Superintendent for Personnel and Admin Services Drew Patrick reviewed the district's "Enrollment Report and Demographic Study," which predicts school enrollment trends over the next 10 years.

Patrick reported that Scarsdale is in an "unusually stable" period of enrollment, with little change projected over the next 10 years. In fact, over the next five years, enrollment is projected to vary by an average of just -0.1 percent (or -7 students per year); from 2023 to 2027, enrollment is expected to drop by the same percentage (or -2 students per year). The numbers are driven primarily by housing stability and turnover, with elementary classes impacted more than middle school and high school sections. Total enrollment, of course, determines instructional requirements (primarily teachers), a major component of the district's budget.

The report summarizes both the district demographer's projections and the administration's "currently attending" approach to predict future enrollment, which have yielded the same general trends. However, the demographer's work is sensitive to long-term patterns and statistics, while the "currently attending" approach is based on actual student count.

Board Vice President Scott Silberfein questioned how the district is using the demographer's data, whether it was reliable and if it was necessary to have the demographer perform the analysis every year. Superintendent Hagerman responded, ""It's not just the students... it's also the longer look at the trends and how reliable those are such that, if there are changes in the future, we can say with some reliability we believe that this is going to happen and we need to prepare for it budgetarily, operationally, educationally..." Silberfein, still concerned about reliability of the data, asked, "Are we looking back and (seeing) how the projections have informed us, and have been accurate or inaccurate?" Hagerman followed up by stating, "With the new tax plan that's being released... it probably doesn't make sense for us to stop looking at trend data at this moment until we have a better sense of how that's going to get implemented, how its going to affect daily lives of (residents) and whether that's going to have any implications for housing market issues." 

2014 Bond Project Update/Communicating 2018 Bond

Assistant Superintendent for Business and Facilities Stuart Mattey followed by presenting a status report on the construction projects that were funded by the 2014 bond, some of which have been completed and others that will be completed by the start of the new school year in September.

At Edgewood Elementary, the library project is still under construction, with an estimated completion date in August. Heathcote Elementary's multipurpose room is still incomplete, but should be finished during this coming summer as well. The middle school's orchestra room has been completed and currently is being used by students; and, the three major projects at the high school – the fitness center, design lab and learning commons already are in use or will be shortly. The fitness center is open; the learning commons will open this week; and, the design lab will open to students next month.

Mattey also reviewed the district's communications efforts related to the upcoming bond referendum, scheduled for February 8. Public outreach began with the distribution of a bond newsletter over winter break and release of an updated website that summarized bond information for residents. Board members and district administrators also will meet with residents during some 15 to 20 school and community events in the coming weeks to review "what the bond means for each facility, what it means for residents and its financial implications," according to Mattey.

Gearing Up For 2018 Budget Process

The beginning of the new calendar year also means renewed focus on the district's budget process. Mattey discussed the 2018-19 budget parameters and timeline, while releasing preliminary data, laying the foundation for future discussion. He reminded attendees that the key budget components are educational programs, capital and administration, and are affected by a number of factors, but most significantly, by projected enrollment, projected staffing needs, projected contractual obligations, historical spending patterns, state aid and other non-tax revenue, fund balance/reserves, and the property tax levy limit.2018-19 Budget Chart 110 copy

As is usually the case, contractual increases in salaries for district staff and employee benefits are the main components of the draft budget (chart 1). The total draft budget is $157,423,353, which represents a 2.43 percent increase over last year, below the projected tax levy limit of 3.31 percent (chart 2). Mattey noted that, "We are below the cap, but higher than we have been in recent memory. We're about $616,000 below the tax levy limit."

Natbony then began a discussion on how the upcoming bond referendum will impact the budget process, by confirming that some facilities projects (such as mold and asbestos testing) will be included in the operating budget, as opposed to being covered by the bond. "If, for some reason, we're not able to use the bond money for these projects that we know we're going to have to do over the next few years... they're going to have to be in an operating budget somewhere, as opposed to in the bond, where we know where getting low interest rates over a number of years in hopefully a tax-neutral way."2018-19 Budget Chart 28 copy

Board Member Nina Cannon then stated, "The tax burden in Scarsdale is significant and homeowners are feeling the impact of the (tax code) changes... I hope we going to be mindful of that as we go through this process. I think that what moves us as trustees is to consider not only our standards in terms of education, which is obviously paramount, but also the concerns of the residents who are paying dearly to live here and send their children to school here."

Natbony countered by saying, "That's why I think the upcoming bond is so important... (It) assumes that there' going to be a $65 million pot of money over years that we'll be able to spend to do things that we know we're going to have to do." He continued, "We have to be conscious of an increased community burden... We should keep the number as low as we can without harming the core values that we want to be there and, hopefully, enhancing them to some degree."

Board Member Art Rublin followed by saying, "I think we all agree that we have to be very cognizant of the taxpayers in the community and the new legislation... The numbers we see here, in historical context for Scarsdale, I think, are relatively low. That should be noted. There were years with a... nine or ten (percent increase)..."

District budget planning sessions will take place throughout February and March, with a budget forum scheduled for March 19. The board expects to adopt the budget on April 16 and the public budget vote is set for May 15.

During the last portion of the meeting, the board dealt with several issues, including voting to approve the Westchester County contract for electronic voting machines and related services to be used for the upcoming bond referendum. The panel also discussed a request for new digital and print textbooks for Spanish 324, at a cost for $14,000; a decision was postponed pending additional information and review.

The meeting concluded with no comments from members of the public who were present.

* * *

SMS Orchestra Room Ribbon Cutting

On Tuesday, the district celebrated completion of Scarsdale Middle School's new orchestra room with congratulations and thanks, a performance by the school's Sinfonietta Strings ensemble and a ribbon cutting ceremony. 

Prior to having access to their own space, middle school orchestra students used to attend class and practice on the auditorium stage. The new room provides much needed storage space and greater capacity to learn and perform. Scarsdale Middle School Principal Meghan Troy said, "The space has transformed the learning for our students. It has provided a consistent learning experience each and every day that goes uninterrupted and is focused." She continued, "We feel very fortunate to work in a district that places such a tremendous value on music and the arts."

After Principal Troy's comments, students in the school's Sinfonietta Strings group performed the first and second movements (abridged) from Johan Sebastian Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 3. Sinfonietta Strings provides the opportunity for seventh and eighth graders to perform advanced repertoire in a chamber ensemble under the direction of orchestra teacher, Rachel Han.SMS ribbon cutting9 copy

Superintendent Thomas Hagerman followed the performance by saying, "This room becomes magic when it's filled with music." He continued by recognizing past and current board of education members involved in the project, the 2014 bond steering committee, district staff members, and PTA members and leadership for their roles in bringing the project to fruition. He concluded his remarks with, "This is a gift primarily for our students. A place where they get to learn skills and learn a passion around music that will, no doubt, last a lifetime."

Assistant Superintendent Stuart Mattey then expressed thanks to those who built the space safely and efficiently, including the architectural team, construction personnel and district facilities staff. Board of Education President Bill Natbony followed by stating, "As a graduate of the High School of Performing Arts in New York City, I deeply understand the importance of music and the arts in schools. This is a fabulous new space that will, and already has, enhanced the ability to fill these halls with music and to serve as an important part of our arts program." He continued to thank all involved in making the new orchestra room a reality, particularly the Scarsdale community. "I want to give a special shout out to our community for always being there for this school district and understanding that the schools are really the most important asset in our community... When we invest in our schools, we invest in our kids and we invest in our community."

The celebration ended with an official ribbon cutting by Natbony, former Board of Education President Suzanne Seiden and Board Member Leila Maude.

Laura Halligan, a new contributor to scarsdale10583.com, is a local writer, editor and marketing consultant. She is principal of Pinch Hit Prose and provides communications services to entrepreneurs, small businesses and nonprofits.

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