Dozens of concerned parents came out to the school district board room fearing the worst Thursday night, as the 2011-2012 tentative budget was released.
The budget takes into consideration reductions in teaching staff, increased class sizes, increased busing distances, the removal of some educational programs and a big cut to non-instructional functions and staff.
"These are not etched in stone," TUFSD Superintendent Dr. Howard Smith said of some of the proposals. Dr. Smith later said that if all the cuts came to fruition, there could be less resources for at-risk students and there would be "red flags" raised about impacting the school district's ability to hit targets.
Some parents in the room argued that the cuts were already too much and would directly impact children.
"Please wake up, you are the voices of us and of our children, so please question these things," said Sleepy Hollow parent Sung Pak to members of the Board of Education. "I think it is going to have great collateral damage, it's going to have such a great effect."
Despite the proposed cuts, the district is proposing to increase the budget to $64,494,404. Even with increases, the cost per-pupil average in the district is going down due to more students, about 100, coming into the district this year across most grade levels.
Overall, the budget increased 1.66 percent, which translates to a tax levy increase of 3.45 percent, that could shake out to a 4.6 percent increase in Tarrytown and a 2.4 percent increase in Sleepy Hollow.
"That could change before tax bills go out," Dr. Smith said.
Dr. Howard Smith admitted that this year's budget relies on a number of non-renewable revenues to break even.
The district is pulling $900,000 from its reserve account which roughly totals 2.5 percent of the budget. He said if the district continued to use reserve funds, the backup money would be depleted in three years and it would be difficult to find the money to put back into reserve funds.
The district is also using a one-off $461,000 in federal money to maintain staffing levels for this year. He said the district would have to find a way to make up that loss in funds next year.
Another way to skim a few dollars is to wait on bundling the district's short-term debt into long-term bonds. The district's short-term funding is at a rate of below 1 percent, while long-term debt could be as high as 4.8 percent. However, the district needs to bundle those funds within five years.
One Sleepy Hollow district parent, Ken Torosian, said he feared for the long-term viability of the district financially and educationally. He said parents should be worried because some are invested in the school system with their children for over 20 years.
"There is an elephant in the room," he said noting the decline in revenues (barring taxes) and increases in expenditures. "It's almost like a Ponzi scheme... where the system will not sustain itself."
Dr. Smith said that the main reasons for the budget increase could be attributed to five main factors: contractual salary increases, health insurance premiums, retirement contributions, BOCES contributions and utilities costs.
The budget presentation also relied on tentative numbers in the event that any further concessions are made by the Teachers’ Association of the Tarrytowns union and the two unions covering non-educational staff.
"It's a functions of what the Teachers' Association wants to do in terms of their contract. That is to be determined," Dr. Smith said. "We've had excellent cooperation considering the circumstances we're in."
Members of the TAT read a written statement (attached) outlining all the sacrifices and contributions that teachers have made to the community above and beyond their work. They said they wanted to sit and talk with the board about their budget recommendations as well.
"We as teachers are not immune to these difficult financial times, we feel the impact personally and professionally," said TAT Vice-President Judy Kelly. Still, she noted that the union has affirmed they could "be counted on to share the sacrifice to get through these difficult times together."
Despite the unknowns, the tentative budget lays out the following areas (just some examples) for cuts or cost saving measures:
- Increasing the walk-to-school distance from a half mile to 8/10 of a mile
- Reducing teacher's assistants
- Elimination of grade 2 Challenge program
- Cutting an elementary librarian
- Cutting the middle school Challenge program
- High school reductions in PE, health and art
- Reduction in science research program staff allocation
- Reduction in summer school offerings
- Cutting guidance staff at the high school level
- Cutting the equivalent of a full-time pupil service position
- Elimination of winter cheerleading
- As well as over $500,ooo in custodial and clerical workers, and efficiencies
Things that are off the table for consideration include:
- Half-day kindergarten
- Elementary band and orchestra
- Assistant to Elementary Principals
- Elementary and Middle School teacher team leaders
- Elementary staff development
- Grade 3-5 Challenge Program
- High school electives
- Tech support
- Professional development
- High school and middle school corridor monitors
- The near elimination of bus service by using max, state standard distances for busing
Many of the cuts and cost saving recommendations came out of discussions on the budget that occurred at a . The meeting involved over 200 district parents. Dr. Smith noted that one of the highest things listed to be cut was administration costs. The proposed budget calls for over $110,000 in administration reductions with pay freezes, less work time for Assistant Principals and the elimination of two department chair positions.
Resident Tim Church said that he thought the board wasn't taking into consideration the salaries of the top earners within the district.
Dr. Smith responded to one question critical of the administration budget by noting that last year they made numerous cuts to administration. He said that the Assistant Superintendent was already doing two jobs for the district and that the Superintendent of Finance was not a position that could be legally contracted out.
Going forward, there will be three budget work sessions on Saturday, March 12; Saturday, March 19; and Saturday, March 26 – all at 8:30 a.m. The work sessions are open to the public. A regular meeting on March 24 will also address the budget.
A public vote on the budget, increased busing distances, and on board members that are facing reelection, will occur on May 17, 2011.
"If budget is defeated, the board can adopt a contingency budget, put the same budget out again, or they can propose to change it and take a different budget out for early June," said Dr. Smith