Over 70 parents and concerned citizens attended last night's unveiling of the draft school district budget, which showed steep cuts from this year's budget.
Union Free School District of the Tarrytowns Superintendent Howard Smith presented his comprehensive proposal which cuts $3 million in spending, mostly in the form of layoffs, larger classrooms sizes and new transportation models.
"We've tried to keep it as child centered as possible," Smith said referring to the budget. "Still its impact will be felt in ways that people will disagree with."
His proposal also recommended the closure of Tappan Hill School, an option the school board has yet to make a decision on.
"We just received the budget packets ourselves," said board president Mimi Godwin. "There have been no discussions at all on whether to close an elementary school."
Smith said the overall theme of his budget was, "Action in the classroom," — highlighting his desire to defend classroom resources and student programs while reducing administrative and maintenance costs.
"We have to protect teachers, class sizes and course offerings because these are most important to a child's education," he said.
Still, many of the proposed cuts come from efficiencies that will cost teachers and support staff their jobs. The proposals will eliminate over 17 equivalent staff positions, according to Smith's presentation. Many more efficiencies will be found by not filling in positions that will be left vacant at the end of the year. Class sizes are also expected to go up to 22 and 23 children for early education and 25 for higher grades, something he said most neighboring districts have already done.
Despite Smith's efforts to curtail spending from last year, the overall school budget will rise by over $1.6 million dollars this year. The increases are attributed to reductions in state and federal aid, increases in state-mandated payments for pension programs and decreases in county tax funds. Due to this, tax payers will still face a 5.48 percent overall tax increase next year; Sleepy Hollow's taxes will rise by 8.27 percent and Tarrytown's by 1.66 percent if the proposed budget is adopted.
"I hate to be blunt, but an 8.27 percent increase is a very disheartening figure," said Sleepy Hollow Trustee Karin Wompa. "It's unfortunate that during prosperous times we were placed with the burden of large tax increases for new services without being prudent and looking forward to when the time came for hard economic times."
Smith's budget plan focused on cutting costs in areas of: administration, building operations and maintenance, library media, professional development, academics and transportation. His full presentation is attached in this article.
For transportation, he said that over $400,000 could be saved by consolidating bus services to three runs a day. His proposal would also increase the walking distance for third graders from .3 mile to a half mile. Like many of the budget reductions, maximum savings would only be realized with the consolidation of elementary schools.
Smith also said that now was the opportune time to close Tappan Hill School. He cited the departure of two school principals, Marilyn Mercado-Belvin of John Paulding and Meghan Fitzgerald of Morse, who will leave the district at the end of this year.
"The human toll of closing a school will be less dramatic this year because one principal position will already be vacant," Smith said. "If we don't go ahead with it this year, we will need to layoff whomever we have just hired next year or the year after.
"I think there is a sense that we've reached inevitability in terms of having to confront the reality of closure."
Many parents disagreed.
"Educational environment is just as important as having good teachers," said Virginia Lustyik during the meeting's scheduled time for public comments. "I believe the budget is taking precedence over our children's well-being."
Smith countered the argument by citing that he does not view either John Paulding or Morse as inappropriate for younger children.
"I walk through Morse many times in a given week, and I never see depressed children, terrified children or children lost on the way to the bathroom," he said. "A lot of this, unfortunately, has to deal with what you are used to, not necessarily what might strike you in absolute terms if you didn't have a previous frame of reference."
The proposed budget will have to be approved by voters in May. The budget, if not passed, would move to a contingency budget that would eliminate programs such as elementary foreign language, ice hockey and swimming, as well as the advanced student program Challenge for second graders and middle school students.
The tax levy increase of the contingency budget would require an overall tax increase of 4.46 percent — 1.15 percent for Tarrytown and 7.74 percent for Sleepy Hollow.
And if Tappan Hill stays open next year, all program cuts included in the contingency budget will automatically go into effect.
Despite the superintendent's assertion that all easy cuts had been made, parents continued to argue in favor of keeping Tappan Hill open, maintaining smaller class-sizes and placing teaching assistants in elementary classes.
"I am a fourth-grade teacher, so I am very aware of how important aides are in kindergarten, first and second-grade classrooms," Parent Tracey Koch said. "If I had to choose between an elementary Spanish program and a teacher's aide, I'd choose the aide."
Community members also suggested ideas such as increased, public negotiations with the unions representing school staff and re-registering all students in the district to make sure services are staying within the district's boundaries.
The board's open budget workshops begin this Saturday, 8:30 a.m., with a discussion of transportation, administration and building operations costs. There will be another meeting on March 13 to discuss building consolidation and academic cuts, and a final meeting on March 20 to address any further areas of uncertainty.
The final budget vote will be held on May 18.
"We have an open budget process and very much encourage community involvement," Board President Godwin said.
Although the meeting ended far from a consensus on where cuts should be made, Smith made it clear his news was just as difficult to deliver as to receive.
"This process has been very emotional for me... Going up to someone who has a job and saying you won't have a job next year is something that we would never choose to do," Smith said after presenting his budget. "You don't get into this business to take resources away from kids, and I am certainly open to new ideas that anyone might have."
Note: Check back for video later this evening.