BOE UNANIMOUSLY SUPPORTS 1.98% BUDGET TO BUDGET INCREASE; SPLIT VOTE ON TAX LEVY; "PROCESS" DOMINATES DISCUSSION
April 6, 2014 -- The North Shore Board of Education voted unanimously to adopt a $95,850,328.85 spending plan for the 2014-15 school year, representing a 1.984% increase over the current year's budget. By a 5-2 margin, the Trustees decided to set the Tax Levy at 87,883,212, a 1.532% rise over this year, and about $320,000 below the state imposed tax levy limit. Trustees Toni Labbate and Sara Jones cast the dissenting votes.
Schools Superintendent Dr. Edward Melnick had given his initial budget presentation in mid-January, and beginning in February, at its semi-monthly regular meetings, the Board and the Superintendent reviewed the spending plan making changes along the way. Over that period, more than $1.2 million in spending was shaved from the first budget draft. The greatest reductions were realized through administrative restructuring that eliminated two district-wide supervisory positions, reductions in the elementary teaching faculty, and a lower than expected rise in pension and health insurance costs.
At Thursday evening's meeting, the board's discussion focused on the budget review process and whether or not the board ought to further reduce the tax levy.
Trustees Maryanne Russo and Michael Nightingale both expressed dissatisfaction with the process and recommended that changes be made.
Ms. Russo stated that she wished Dr. Melnick had presented all of his proposed reductions at the first budget meeting, which she said, would have made the subsequent meetings "more productive." It would be better to get "a picture of the end-game" at the beginning of the process, she said. Dr. Melnick replied that that was the process that was used 11 years ago when the budget was defeated, and he believed that the community's perception was that the Board was simply "rubber stamping" without offering input, and so it was changed to its current form during which the trustees and superintendent go through the budget page by page and reductions are recommended and discussed. He suggested that the issue be put on the agenda for a future meeting at which possible changes to the process could be considered.
Trustee Nightingale asserted that the process did not give the board the opportunity to offer its input regarding what cuts ought to have been made. "I don't want us to misguide for a moment to think that there's not more room in this budget for things that cannot be cut," he said. "It's a little disheartening that Board members prefer to take sort of a hands off position on the budget." While he said he understands that when the Superintendent makes recommendations, "we certainly have the right to challenge those or make our own," he didn't "feel that the process was available for other board members, or the board didn't want that process, to make other suggestions because I have heard several times statements made at our meetings that we are not going to challenge decisions made by the superintendent." He continued, "I feel that we as a board should have more of a say in the matter and there are opportunities for us to input other ideas. . . . There are other ideas of Board members that certainly could make a difference." Going forward, he said he "hoped the process could be a little bit more meaningful," and that there would be "a little more discussion on some other ideas."
Addressing Trustee Nightingale, Trustee Amy Beyer replied that she was sorry he felt that way and said that she "never has felt that [she] was not able to offer [her] input." "Every single meeting we go through the budget, we go page by page. Everybody has an opportunity to say things. We go through the programs over the course of the year," she said. "I think that was a misrepresentation of what actually occurs here."
She added that it was good that the Superintendent showed the board what a 0% tax levy increase contingency budget would look like, but recommended that it be presented to the board earlier in the review process rather than at the end, to get a better idea of priorities.
Trustee Nightingale replied that while it was good that a contingency budget was presented it was the Superintendent's view of the what the cuts should be and that the board was never given the opportunity of deciding what a contingency budget would look like. He said that the board did not have the opportunity to discuss alternative cuts. Trustee Beyer interjected, "we're not at that point yet- God forbid we should be there at the end of May" should the budget not win voter approval. Mr. Nightingale continued that the board went through the budget page by page and discussed the Superintendent's cuts but did not have the opportunity to discuss alternatives. "Herman has said several times that we are not going to challenge the Superintendent's decisions."
President Berliner replied that Trustee Nightingale was "misrepresenting [his] words. What Herman said," the President continued, "was that he does not believe in micro-managing - these are the professional educators. The judgement of the board,and the scrutiny of the board is absolutely essential." He cited the 2012-13 budget process when the board put before voters a spending plan that was $1.2 million below what the tax cap allowed. He said that the Superintendent had presented a budget over 3%, but it was the board that had directed the Superintendent to come back with a proposal that would keep both the spending plan and the tax levy below 2% despite the cap being significantly higher.
Trustee Nightingale replied that he wasn't on the board that year, and may have "misstated the facts," but was "just saying what the perception was."
Trustee Tom Knierim said that it is "a philosophy of governance" and that "it's not about not challenging anything." The philosophy the board has operated under, he said, "is to take the top line of the what the number should be," but "I'm not qualified to count the number of textbooks."
Trustee Jones added that she did not believe that anyone on the board had been "denied the opportunity to say something" throughout the budget process.
During the public comment period, two residents spoke on the issue.
Sea Cliff Resident Tom Murphy said that during the nine years he served on the board, "the information was generally gotten through the building principals and the administration and then discussed as a board throughout the process with ample opportunity for questions and answers, cuts, additions, whatever you wanted to do." Directing his remarks towards Trustee Nightingale, Mr. Murphy said that for "someone at this point in time, when this budget that has to be adopted under state law, to start to say that this process was for some reason not transparent, I think is a very disingenuous statement." He said that he had the minutes from five meetings at which the budget was discussed and did not see evidence of the Trustee having raised issues. "There is ample opportunity," he continued. "You have an obligation, in addition to the right, to ask questions about a $96 million budget. So to come here and hear that - I am insulted as a community member. . . . We deserve better."
Trustee Nightingale replied, "I'm glad you're insulted, Tom, because I was insulted by the process. I was here and I listened to certain people spoon feed their cuts, and it was clear to me that the board was not going to entertain cuts other than the ones they heard from the Superintendent. That's the impression I got being here the first year. . . . I just wanted to know that other opinions were being considered, and that's not the feeling I had."
"I've got 5 meetings of minutes here," Mr. Murphy said in response. " And you got the opportunity to ask a question whenever you wanted . . . Your obligation is to ask questions. If you have a problem with something, then seek clarification."
A few minutes later, Sea Cliff resident Roger Friedman of Sea Cliff, said that he was "troubled" by Trustee Nightingale's comments, because he assumed "that the process was free and fair and open, and that everyone and everybody on the board has a voice." "I'm curious," he continued, "to know what ideas did you have that were not heard and what questions were not answered specifically throughout this process so that I can understand your comments."
Mr. Nightingale replied that "there were lots of ideas." He said that perhaps some of the Directors positions could be made part-time - such as Guidance and Athletics. With regard to the Athletic Directorship, he said it was something that Manhasset had done last year, but he didn't think it was a possibility here at North Shore. With regard to guidance, Trustee Nightingale said that the state did not mandate that it be a full-time position. It wasn't something the district would necessarily want to do, he continued, but that it was worth exploring. Mr. Friedman interrupted, "You believe you didn't have the opportunity to explore that?" Mr. Nightingale replied that during the budget review process "the Superintendent provided his list of cuts and the board chose to give him that deference." As Dr. Berliner cut off the exchange, Mr. Friedman said he didn't feel as if his question had been answered.
LOWERING THE TAX LEVY BY $200,000 MORE
With regard to the revenue side of the budget, Dr. Melnick stated that the district would be receiving $200,000 more in state aid than expected, and that he and Assistant Superintendent for Business Olivia Buatsi were recommending that that amount be used to further reduce the tax levy to 87,883,212 a 1.532% increase over last year, but $319,548 below the tax levy limit of 1.898.
Dr. Melnick said that two years ago the Board had adopted a budget that was more than $1.2 million below the cap, and that the cumulative impact of that decision, had cost the district more than that amount in each subsequent year's tax levy.
The Board discussed whether to follow the Superintendent's advice or to replenish a portion of the reserves that were being depleted to cover ordinary budget expenditures.
Trustee Maryanne Russo, said that in light of the uncertainty over the impact of the power plant decommissioning, she supported using the $200,000 to further reduce the levy. Trustees Nightingale and Knierim and Board President Herman Berliner agreed.
Trustee Knierim stated that the $200,000 wasn't bringing down the levy significantly, and would establish good will with the community in future years.
Trustee Toni Labbate disagreed saying that the district was already under a low cap, and that the district would continue to "lose ground" as lowering the levy by $200,000 would affect every future year's budgets.
Trustee Jones concurred, saying that there is a compounding effect. "This will impact every single year. It doesn't just impact this year, but future years."
Trustee Beyer said that she was struggling which way to go. "Its not a consequential amount of money," she said. " We don't believe we are going to have a significant impact from LIPA this next year - it could be utilized another year when we take a hit." However, she continued, going from "1.76 to 1.53 does have a better sound, and that the community would be appreciative, but that is money that we could utilize down the road."
Ultimately Trustee Beyer joined the majority in a 5-2 vote to use the additional $200,000 in state aid to further reduce the levy rather than to reduce the depletion of the reserves. Trustees Labbate and Jones voted "no."
During public comment, Tim Madden of Northwordnews asked how much that $200,000 reduction in the tax levy would save the average homeowner on his tax bill each month. Assistant Superintendent for Business Olivia Buatsi, replied, "about 50 cents."
Later, during the same public comment period, Sea Cliff Resident Noah Blumenthal said that he was concerned at how much the tax levy had been reduced, and its potential impact on future budgets. "This idea for 50 cents a month," he said, "we are getting rid of a block of money that could be used year after year after year" for one and a half teachers was troubling. He explained that it was important to distinguish between "fiscal responsibility" and "fiscal anxiety." "I want to make sure that the voices of the educationally responsible is equally important," he said, "and that there are those of us in the community who think that you are going too far in fiscal anxiety. There is a lot of room in this budget to be more pro-education and less fiscally anxious."
On May 20, voters will have the opportunity at the ballot box to express their views on the budget and tax levy adopted by the School Board this past Thursday evening.
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