April 12, 2011

Budget Meeting Tonight

Tuesday April 12, 2011
Maple Hill High School Library
    6:00 – 7:30p.m. 

Community Budget Advisory Team Meeting notes from Tuesday, March 29, 2011 
Superintendent Robert Horan thanked the few dozen attendees for coming to the fourth Community Budget Advisory Team meeting. The community feedback has been so helpful Mr. Horan said they would continue for those interested. Future dates would be April 12, May 10, and June 7. Mr. Horan said he is also available to meet with smaller groups for anyone interested; he thanked a group of parents who already invited him to meet with them.

Mr. Horan noted that Schodack and Ichabod school districts had hired a consulting firm for the consolidation-merger study with the state grant money they received. The district would keep the community updated on its work.

Mr. Horan said the budget process continues as the district looks at ways to reduce costs. The easy way would be to make big cuts; but the better way is to be more precise with cuts and look for alternative ways to offer programs to maintain programs as much as possible. He called on the district and community both to do more to help get through the next few difficult years.

Donna Watson, Director of Curriculum, Instruction and Personnel Services, gave a presentation on library services. Libraries have changed dramatically in education. They are no longer quiet places to just get books. Library media specialists help teachers integrate research, project based learning and other 21st Century learning skills into lessons. Schodack’s library media specialists have improved curriculum. A parent asked what is mandated. Only a high school library media specialist is required. The parent said while she appreciated the work they do, the district should look at those positions before cutting afterschool clubs or sports. Mrs. Watson stressed that she’s seen profound impacts on students and library media specialists help every student. CES Principal Jason Chevrier added that the library media specialists have transformed how the schools teach; students are more engaged and motivated to do projects because of them.

Sherri Fisher, Assistant Superintendent for Business and Support Services, provided more detailed budget summaries that members had asked for. (They are available on the Budget Information webpage.) She answered a previous question about the cost of transportation and sports, noting sports make up 1.3 percent of the budget; transportation is a very small portion of the sports budget. Can the district have volunteer coaches? Yes, some assistant coaches are volunteers. How much does a varsity coach cost? Between $2,500 and $4,000, depending on the time involved in the sport. Mr. Horan noted the importance of athletics and co-curricular activities on academics. Both provide motivation for students to do well in school, increase attendance, and help in getting students into college, particularly activities outside the normal school day. The district has high participation rates in both. The district also has a strict code of conduct, resulting in fewer discipline problems.

Mrs. Fisher provided an update on the state budget. The governor and legislature had a conceptual agreement. A total of $272 million out of a $1.5 billion cut in state aid was restored. The district was waiting to get its state aid figures. The district didn’t anticipate a large restoration. Mandate relief options had been discussed at the state but most had only long-term implications and wouldn’t help for 2011-12. Districts would like the state to look at mandates such as seat time for students and special education which constrain what districts can do.

Mrs. Fisher said the Board of Education had given the district specific guidance for draft 3 of the budget. That included a tax levy increase between 4 and 6 percent, no reduction in arts, music, co-curricular activities and sports, and move to three sections for all grades at CES. Getting to a 4 percent tax levy increase is a challenge. A 4 percent increase would require $650,000 in cuts; a 6 percent increase would require $450,000 in cuts.
Residents asked a number of questions:

Q: Did the district offer a retirement incentive?
A: Yes.

Q: What was the difference between draft 1 and draft 2 budgets?
A: Mostly updates on cost figures, such as health insurance. There would be more significant changes in draft 3.

Q: Would a 6 percent tax levy increase mean an even higher tax rate increase?
A: Yes. The district’s property tax base had decreased by $28 million in the last year, increasing the tax impact on homeowners. STAR changes by the state also could impact taxes that residents pay. The district didn’t expect a budget with a 6 percent tax levy increase.

Q: What would it look like if the budget didn’t pass?
A: A contingency budget would have to be lower than the budget proposed but likely not significantly lower.

Q: Where were other revenues in budget like continuing education?
A: The continuing education program is self-funded.

Q: If the district froze salaries for a year, what would the cost savings be? The resident asking the question noted her question did not reflect any judgment on the value or performance of teachers. Given the financial conditions, however, she felt it had to be considered.
A: The savings would be approximately $316,000.

Q: Why would the district allow raises at all in this financial situation?
A: Schools are required by state law to allow employees to collectively bargain. The district has three unions that represent most school employees. The district can not force a pay freeze; the unions have to agree to freeze their salaries.

Q: What are steps?
A: Steps essentially equate to years of service. With each step, an employee receives a raise of between 2.3% and 2.5%.

Q: Can’t the district eliminate step raises?
A: The union would have to agree to that. Because of a state law regulation referred to as the Triborough Amendment, if a union does not accept the district’s contract terms, the previous year’s contract continues for another year and step raises would continue. Board of Education member George Warner noted the provision limits the district’s power to get such concessions at the negotiating table; school districts as a result have sought relief from the Triborough Amendment.

Q: Is the district negotiating raises in the new teachers’ contract?
A: Because the district is currently in negotiations, it would be a breach of those discussions to discuss what is being offered. However, the Board of Education is very concerned with the long term expenses of the district.

Q: Is there a salary raise in addition to step raises?
A: Yes, there is an additional 0.25 percent increase on top of step raises.

Q: So a step raise and an additional salary would automatically be included because of Triborough?
A: Only the step raise.

Q: Does the district ask for increased contributions to health insurance?
A: That is always a consideration in budget negotiations.

Q: If employees were required to pay 5 percent more of their health insurance, what would the savings be?
A: Between $40,000 and $50,000, approximately.

A teacher noted that the teacher’s union always bargains in good faith, considering both what is best for the district and employees. The district has to be competitive and ensure it attracts high quality employees. The more experience teachers have the more valuable they are and deserve to be compensated fairly. Teachers also have been doing more and more the last few years as the budget has been cut. A resident replied she understood that but noted her and her husband also are more valuable with each year of experience yet their household income has dropped in the last few years due to the economy.

Q: What will be the impact of cuts at the Middle School?
A: Like each school, the Middle School is looking at offering students opportunities in different ways and utilize faculty differently to strengthen programs wherever possible. Specifically, the school is looking to offer electives to lessen the number of students in study halls.

Q: Do teachers in different districts teach the same amount?
A: No, it depends on the contracts in each district. They also differ between each school in the district.

Q: How many students participate in fifth grade band?
A: About 55 students.

Q: What are other districts doing with modified sports?
A: Some districts are cutting but not a lot of districts are.

Q: What are the incoming kindergarten class numbers?
A: About 48 students. Typically at this point CES would have high 50s. They expect a kindergarten class in the mid 60s.

Q: What alternatives are there to Family and Consumer Sciences in High School?
A: Students will learn relevant information in different classes, such as good nutrition in physical education. As far as sequences, there still will be technology, arts, and language.

Q: Where are the cuts to teaching assistants?
A: The district currently has 32 teaching assistants that are not mandated. The district is evaluating the best use of teaching assistants throughout the district and will reallocate to where they are most effective. The priority will be core learning areas such as science, social studies and reading.

The group was asked what key budget points should be communicated? Answers included:
·    The difference between a contingent budget and adopted budget if voted down.
·    Trends over last few years, including spending, state aid and assessment base.
·    How the district is trying to save programs.
·    The cuts last year as a reference point.
·    How the district is dealing with salary increases and rising health insurance costs.
·    Make it clear the district is cutting spending while dealing with mandates.
·    The district’s long term plans.
·    Cost of extracurricular activities and sports in terms of overall budget.
·    Importance of extracurricular activities and sports in attendance, student performance and ability to get into college.

Board of Education members in attendance stressed the importance of writing to legislators, particularly about mandate relief. The team asked for sample letters, like that were provided last year on the school website.


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