After months of meetings, study-sessions and public outcry, the Scarsdale School Board agreed on its 2011-2012 budget. It was a tough go for the Board. Big cuts from Albany and rising pension, health care and energy costs presented unprecedented challenges. All along, the Board worked hard to keep within the fiscal constraints while maintaining Scarsdale’s dedication to excellence in education. It was no easy task and everyone noted at the meeting last week that it was a job well done. These were long meetings and a lot of details, so we decided to break down the biggest issues and show how they were resolved.
- Overall budget $138.4 million
- Projected property tax increases are 4.81% for Scarsdale and 3.19% for the Mamaroneck strip
- Budget-budget increase 2.75%
- Tax levy growth 3.18% higher due to revenue losses
- Two thirds of the budget increase will go to pensions
- 10% cut in investment in equipment and supplies
- 50% cut in facilities budget
- There will be 17.5 fewer teaching and support positions than in the 2008-9 budget
- The faculty agreed to forgo a salary increase salvaging 20 positions and saved the taxpayers $1.9 million over 2 years.
- The latest numbers out of Albany showed a restoration of less that 20% of funding cuts
- Scarsdale did however receive $271,000 in state aid
- The District is eligible for $243,000 in federal aid for job funding
The board decided that the $243,000 in federal aid will be used to hire a teacher and to fund a pilot program teaching Mandarin Chinese in the high school. The Board noted that while they are aware that no student will become fluent with this single class, teaching Mandarin is critical in this day and age and will provide a strong foundation for future study.
This was the hottest and most contentious issue this budget season. After much public debate and weighing the issues, the Scarsdale Board of Education decided to maintain current class levels and not increase the cap size at the elementary school level.
The board and the administration is keeping a close eye on the large 8th grade class that will be entering high school in the fall. Dr. McGill spoke on how scheduling and class section times may need closer inspection in order to accommodate that many incoming students and not causing overcrowding in certain classes.
As in past meetings, class size continued to be a big issue at the April 7th meeting. Several community members and parents spoke out ahead of the board’s vote. Among them, Nancy Berdon, Chair of the Scarsdale Forum, formerly known as the TVCC (Town and Village Civic Club Education Forum).
She summarized the Forum’s recommendations:
- Maintaining elementary school class levels
- Studying class sizes across all grade levels
- Exploring options for District personnel before increasing the number of overall positions
- Reducing reserves in the coming year ( Full Report Here )
On behalf of the Forum Berdon praised the Board for making the hard decisions and putting the needs of the schools and the students’ education under tough fiscal times.
The League of Women Voters also issued their report. That report praised the board for it’s hard work during these challenging times. The League cautioned that continued deferral of capital expenses cannot continue indefinitely, and hopes that the District will select priority projects to undertake as funds become available. Their full statement will be available on their website.
Surprisingly, one of the more difficult issues dealt with that night was not education, but student health and the number of school nurses on staff.
Parent Cynthia Kantor expressed concern that children’s health needs will not be met if the schools let go of the nurse ‘floater” particularly at the middle school. Kantor explained for example, a nurse must accompany a class if a diabetic child is on a field trip. This will then cut the number of nurses available at the schools during the day.
There was much debate on the board that night weighing the needs and the costs of maintaining this position. An idea was raised to use the federal funds for this position and the Mandarin teacher with reserve fund money.
Ultimately, it was decided to cut the floater and maintain steady rotation of substitute nurses. The board did agree to reassess the issue early in the new school year.
Much of the meeting on Monday April 11 focused on the idea of creating a foundation. This would be a way of raising money to help fund some of the classes and activities that makes Scarsdale a premier school during economically difficult time. The foundation would look to alumni, residents and outside donors to raise money. While many concerns were raised, including a donor’s interests at odds with the school’s objectives, as well as disenfranchising taxpayers to the schools’ needs, the Board ultimately felt that the idea was worth of further study and will form an exploratory committee.
A foundation could solve a lot of the problems that the district faced this year. There might not have been debate about the inclusion of a Mandarin program if foundation funds were available. The question of increasing class size might never have been raised. I am all for giving the private sector or individuals incentive to help a community. But if mismanaged or handled incorrectly this could have negative implications for years to come.
The Board already highlighted some potential pitfalls:
If there is a foundation, will the community be willing to pay high taxes to live in this community and attend the schools? (Frequent commenters --I’m sure you have GADS to say about that one)
What if a generous donor has an objective that is very different from the schools? Does the school have the right to take the money if it won’t adhere to what the donor wants? Does a donor have the right to dictate what’s done with the money?
Also, other issues that come to mind:
Currying favor: It’s an old joke that sometimes a kid attends a great school not because he’s such a good student, but his family’s name is on a building. Will some parents expect that a check will lead to a good grade, or a lead in a school play or a spot on the varsity team for their child?
Competition and division: There are some very wealthy people in town, some, less so. Will a foundation divide the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ and the ‘givers’ and the ‘takers’? If you don’t give, will you be made to feel like you have less of a say in what happens at school?
These may not be real troubles and are easily dealt with. Readers, what do you think?
Jen is a freelance journalist who has covered the economy and markets for over a decade at a major financial news outlet. She lives in Scarsdale with her husband and 2 children. Jen has yet to bake a successful batch of cookies.