BOARD NOTES - September 12, 2013 North Shore School Board Meeting
Present – Board President Herman Berliner, Vice President Tom Knierim, Trustee Amy Beyer, Trustee Sara Jones, Trustee Michael Nightingale, Trustee Marianne Russo, Superintendent Ed Melnick, Assistant Superintendent Rob Cheblicki, Assistant Superintendent for Business Olivia Buatsi, District Clerk Betty Ciampi. Trustee Toni Labatte was unable to make the meeting. Also present were two bond lawyers to answer questions from the board regarding the proposed bond.
President’s Intro: At the start of the meeting, President Berliner explained that the meeting would be videotaped and that the Board was looking into having all meetings streamed through the internet so that residents unable to attend could watch the meeting. A fuller discussion of the issue took place later.
He also explained that technology teacher Bruce Fichtman had taken the Board on a tour of the Victorian house prior to the meeting
Superintendent’s Report: Dr. Melnick stated the following – - that there was a smooth opening to the school year - Grades 3-8 ELA and Math scores were sent out along with a letter from John King, the New York State Commissioner of Education explaining reasons for the drop in scores state-wide. - The cut-off scores on the tests for receiving Academic Intervention Services (AIS) were lowered by the state, thus reducing the number of students entitled to such services - Dr. Melnick gave a summary of the Kindergarten avg. class sizes in each of the schools. They are 21 overall. 24 at Glen Head; 22 at Sea Cliff; and 3 classes at Glenwood with sizes of 19, 18, and 17. He said having only 2 classes would put them over the maximum of 25. - He said that he had been asked by a few parents whether they could take their children out of their zoned school for kindergarten and send them to Glenwood where class sizes were smaller, so that district-wide class size could be balanced. He said that board policy prohibited that from happening, and that he also saw it as setting a bad precedent. He went on to explain that class sizes across Long Island were on the rise as a result of 2,700 teaching position lost since the implementation of the 2% tax levy limit. - He said he had received complaints about 29 students being placed in an 8th grade French class. He explained that that was within the maximum of 30 which is written into the teacher’s contract. -Average class-size for secondary students, he said, is 25. - He addressed concerns he has heard over reductions in Math and Art instruction in the elementary schools. He said that the programs were changed after consulting with teachers. That the changes would allow for more common core preparation. In grades 3-5, students who play an instrument will no longer be taking music class and that some of the concepts covered in music class would be covered during instrument instruction. He said that the district’s intention is not to reduce art and music instruction and that those subjects would be woven into the regular classroom course of study. Music and Art teachers would occasionally come into the classroom to co-teach with the regular teacher when concepts leant themselves to those sorts of connections. He also stated that the new schedule would allow teachers to get away from test preparation, and give them the time to do more inquiry based learning activities. - STAR EXEMPTION - Dr. Melnick then explained that the district allows and encourages seniors to apply for STAR exemption. Trustee Knierim added that all residents need to re-register for the basic STAR exemption - The Superintendent explained that he was forming a Superintendent’s advisory group that would be made up of 3 Board members and members of the community. - Back to School Night at all schools will be next week (9/16-20)
PUBLIC COMMENT – -Terry Glassman, Old Brookville, explained that a group of residents met prior to the board meeting to discuss ways of cutting costs in the District in preparation for the tax burden shift that is likely to take place with the de-commissioning of the GWL power plant. She said that the individuals who met would be good candidates for the Citizen’s Advisory Committee. - Deb McDermott, Sea Cliff, asked a question about requirements for the STAR exemption and commented on the FLES program saying that 35 minutes of Mandarin or Spanish instruction every sixth day in grades 3-5 does not seem enough. Dr. Melnick explained that the North Shore Schools have one of the shortest school days on Long Island making it difficult to incorporate more instruction into the school day. He said lengthening the teachers’ day would require changes to the contract. He did say however that he was looking into the possibility of staggering teachers’ starting and ending times so as to be able to lengthen the school day for students. He said that it is a goal of the FLES program to tie the foreign language instruction to concepts covered in class so that the regular classroom teacher could reinforce what the foreign language teacher had taught (he gave the example of the study of colors in a Kindergarten classroom as an opportunity to do that).
-Peggy Egan asked why the teacher day is so short. Dr. Melnick replied that it was something that will have to come up in the next contract negotiations. Principals have outlined a need for more time he said.
-Roger Friedman of Sea Cliff said that he was new to the district and asked if Dr. Melnick could explain what were the fiscal challenges facing the District. Dr. Melnick explained that the District had for decades been able to offer students “a gold standard education at a silver standard price” because the Power Plant has picked up about 30% of the tax burden. And so, the ramp-down of the plant and the re-assessment of the property will create major challenges. In addition, the Tax Levy limit also has imposed great challenges. He explained that the Superintendents’ group he belongs to predicted that Long Island districts would start falling off a financial cliff in 2016-17 – something he said is already happening to up-state districts. For next year, he continued, just to maintain what we have this year, would require a tax levy increase of $5 million. To keep within the tax cap, he would have to cut out about half of that increase.
Dr. Melnick then went on to explain that the changes in the tax assessment and de-commissioning of the LIPA plant could cause a tax hike of anywhere from 1% to 19% for district residents.
Trustee Michael Nightingale added that if the district needs to cut, everyone’s input is needed.
Trustee Amy Beyer added that the district’s tax rate is the 44th lowest in the County and that this is largely because of the power plant.
Larry Ruisi, Old Brookville, asked for clarification of the 44th ranking that had just been mentioned. Dr. Melnick stated that was for the tax rate – not total tax levy. In other words the tax per $ of assessed property value. Mr. Ruisi asked if the $5 million that was necessary to add to the budget next year to maintain the current programs included pension and healthcare costs. Dr. Melnick replied that most of the increase was for those expenses.
Mr. Ruisi said that there has been a lot of discussion on how to discuss the test scores with children, and asked for some suggested talking points. Dr. Melnick said that there was information in the letter from Commissioner King and a link to a website on how to address that issue. He continued that on 9/26 there would be a board discussion about the district’s testing philosophy.
Amy Falconi, Sea Cliff, asked about the explanation of scores that came with the test score letters sent home this week. Dr. Melnick explained that the score on the front is the holistic score, while on the back it is broken down according to the section of the test and concept covered.
James Patel of Glen Head stated that there is a hole in the fence behind the track and field at the high school that allows students access to the LIRR tracks and a path leading to the Promenade section of Glen Head, and that it has been there for years. He expressed concerns about students’ safety and district liability.
Noah Blumenthal, Sea Cliff, stated that some of the changes with regard to incorporating art and music into the classroom were exciting, but expressed concerns about how those changes were related to testing, and of “having to get through the curriculum.” He said that the common core was pushed at us but that there is a lot of choice with regard to what we do in the classroom. He continued that he knows there was a big outcry when test scores fell a few years ago and that in response the district opted to emphasize test preparation. We’ve proven, he said that our students can do extremely well on the tests when prepped and that now gives us the opportunity to move away from that approach. He stated that his children would be opting out of the exam and encouraged the school board and superintendent to consider a district-wide opt out. Ed Melnick replied that there is no legal right for the district as a whole to opt out. That to do so would allow Commissioner King to remove the entire school board. He said the board has the right to say we don’t want test prep and that they can develop that policy. He continued that the ELA program (Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Workshop) has nothing to do with the tests but needs 90 minutes/day. The new Math program is aligned with the Common Core but is more conceptually grounded. He said that he believes that there is a great deal of “authentic” learning taking place in the district and cited the GWL Japanese Garden, One Room Schoolhouse, 9/11 memorial, Victorian House, SC Kinder Garden as examples. Dr. Melnick went onto explain that the district moved heavily towards test prep three years ago, but believes we’ve come back a bit from that.
Denise Reiner, Glen Head, stated that she believes there used to be problems with the writing and English program in the district but in the past three years it has shown great improvement and stated that the tests caused the district to take a look at how it does things. She said the tests create anxiety and are not a good way to push teachers to do their jobs. She said that she thought opting out was not a good approach.
Dr. Melnick encouraged people to get the word out about the Sept 26 meeting when this discussion would be continued.
President Berliner said that the state created the anxiety by radically changing the standard.
Lisa Albanese, Old Brookville, stated that she has noticed a great difference in the education of her son who is in college and was taught to be a thinker, and her younger daughter who has been taught to take tests.
A Sea Cliff Resident stated that she agreed with Mr. Blumenthal and that everyone supports deeper critical thinking. She continued that there has been too much test prep and expressed disapproval of the 7 hour test simulation that took place last spring.
Melinda Bloom, Glen Head, who is on the Board of Arts Angels, read a letter expressing the organization’s disappointment over the cuts to the elementary arts program and the lack of district communication over the issue. She described the process as having taken place behind closed doors and questioned why parents were given so little info about the changes.
Myla Baruchi asked whether the district considered what colleges are looking for in students. She stated she believed that they want students with critical thinking skills. Dr. Melnick replied that yes – colleges are looking for critical thinkers and students who can collaborate with each other. He conceded that “we’ve lost a lot of discovery learning in the elementary years.”
Trustee Russo stated that guidance counselors visit colleges to find out about what they are looking for in students.
Roger Friedman asked if there were groups working on the issues that had been raised.
Dr. Melnick encouraged people to call legislators and that the district legislative action committee was created to address issues such as these.
Trustee Beyer stated that Albany often has a deaf ear to what school boards and the superintendents have to say and encouraged individuals to organize, write, and call.
BOND REFERENDUM DISCUSSION – Dr. Melnick gave some background stating that every year engineers inspect district facilities and give recommendations to the district on what work will likely be necessary over the next five years. Dr. Melnick asked that with the tax levy limit they consider looking ten years out so that the district could better plan long-term. He stated that the original list or projects, which included necessities as well as a wish list totaled $110 million. That was whittled down to $30 million. That number was further whittled down to $19.6 million which just includes infrastructure projects that, Dr. Melnick asserted, will have to be done no matter what over the next few years. The question is, “what is the best way to pay for them?” He stated that debt service for the district will begin to rapidly decline and that under the tax cap, districts are penalized for paying down their debt. He stated that with regard to debt service, residents would not see an increase in taxes with the proposed borrowing.
He also said the district needed to decide on the number of voting machines and the hours of voting.
Trustee Nightingale asked the two bond attorneys present if the district could borrow the full $19.6 million now in order to take advantage of low interest rates. One attorney replied that the district could not issue the bonds until the State Ed Department had approved the projects first, and that there was now a 28 week delay in approving applications. He also explained that districts cannot borrow at this time and hold onto the money to spend far off into the future – that arbitrage regulations prohibit that. He also stated that it is advantageous to the district to phase in the borrowing over time to keep the debt service relatively level. In addition, he stated that it was not advantageous to the district to pay interest on money that it was not using. He concluded saying that the issuance of bonds should be phased in over time to juxtapose new debt service with old debt service.
Trustee Knierim stated that the first issuance of bonds would be for $7 million and the second round for $12.6 million. He asked, “what if there is an interest rate shock? Could the district decide not to borrow even though voters authorized it?”
Asst. Supt. for Business Olivia Buatsi said if that were the case, the revenue from the district’s investments would help to minimize those increases.
One of the bond attorneys explained that the Board had the legal right to not do all of the work and not issue bonds that had been authorized by a public vote.
There was then a discussion of the voting times and number of machines. The Board expected greater turnout relative to the vote a couple of years ago for the withdrawal of funds from the Capital Reserve to pay for the track and artificial turf field for which only 700 voters turned out. The Board agreed to have three pull lever voting machines and keep polls open from 7 am to 10 pm on the December 3rd when the vote will take place.
The board then examined two flyers that were created by Public Relations Director Shelly Newman, to promote the bond. The Board agreed that they should spend more time looking them over and that comments should be sent to Dr. Melnick. President Berliner stated that the goal of the board is to be as transparent as possible and that the full proposal would be on the website on Friday.
SPECIAL EDUCATION REVIEW - The Allenwood Company has been selected by the district to do a comprehensive review of the district’s special education programs. RFPs were sent out, and the proposals ranged from $6000 to $175,000. Allenwood’s proposal was for $40,000. Dr. Melnick explained that Allenwood would be looking at the program from a variety of perspectives – parents, teachers, students, etc, and examining all of its aspects. The review would also include observing classes. The purpose of the review, Dr. Melnick stated is to get an objective view of our programs so that the district could “get more bang for buck.”
A parent asked a question about how the confidentiality of students would be ensured? Dr. Melnick replied that names are redacted and the firm signs a confidentiality agreement.
Another parent asked if they could opt their kids out from be being observed. Dr. Melnick replied they could not. The parent then asked why parents could not observe if this outside company could? Dr. Melnick replied that he saw a big difference between the two situations. President Berliner added that those coming in were experts in the field. Dr. Melnick stated that parents do not have a “right” to observe their child in the classroom. He stated that parents should meet with the child’s teacher if there are questions about how things are working and then move up the chain of command from there.
Trustee Beyer said that SEPTA was a good avenue to go through to raise questions about the consultation.
Trustee Knierim said that the purpose of this was not to review individual IEPs but to look at the big picture.
A parent stated that this is scary when the district is saying that it is looking to “get more bang for buck” as that implies a cut to programs and services.
Dr. Melnick replied that the performance of the district’s special education students make him very proud, and that Sea Cliff was recently recognized by the state as a school that has been successful in “closing the gap.”
Trustee Russo stated that the district is trying to make sure it is providing the best education possible for what is being spent and that all the districts programs are reviewed on a rotating basis.
Director of Special Education Services, Tom Korb, stated that he is excited about the review and that having another set of eyes looking at the program can only lead to good things.
Terry Glassman, Old Brookville, asked about presenting the bond to the public, saying, "you stated the bond won’t increase our taxes. If we didn’t do anything, would it decrease taxes?"
Dr. Melnick replied that it would not, because the expenses would be included in later budgets. Ms. Buatsi added that by borrowing the money now it gives us predictability.
Trustee Russo added, to spend on a big project all at once leaves the district vulnerable to spikes in the tax levy.
Larry Ruisi, Old Brookville, stated that it would be a good idea to have a wireless mike for the audience and asked if in the future the board could give a dollar value on items E on the Agenda which involve salary changes for column advancement and appointments.
Deb McDermott, Sea Cliff, asked if there was a board liaison for LAC. Tom Knierim said there needs to be a discussion concerning the committee’s mission. Amy Beyer said the Bylaws needed to be looked at – that there were not supposed to be three board liaisons.
DISCUSSION – INTERNET ACCESS TO BOARD MEETINGS - The board discussed streaming Board Meetings via the internet. Several issues were raised including whether or not the district could track the numbers of people viewing the stream, whether or not the broadcast would be live or recorded, and with live- streaming whether there would be the ability for people watching at home to e-mail questions. The District looked into the cost of equipment for the streaming. High quality recording tied into sound would cost $2,000, Average quality would cost $1,230, and the ability to live stream and e-mail questions would cost $1860 for the equipment and about $5000 for the annual lease. Dr. Melnick stated that there was room in the budget equipment line for the expense and added that the equipment could be used for other purposes such as performances, speakers and classroom instruction. Trustee Kniernam stated that a tech person would be needed. Trustee Nightingale said that that would be a good role for students and a good learning experience. Trustee Beyer said the quality is very important and that there should be no editing. She added that the Victorian Recording Studio would be up and running next year and that streaming the meetings should be tied into that. Bruce Fichtman, she said, should be a part of the discussion.
An audience member asked if the infrastructure was in place for the equipment to be used anywhere in the district. The Board replied that is was.
President Berliner said that this issue would be revisited, that the estimates would be looked at and that Eliot Kaye, Director of the Computer Department, should be involved in the discussion.
Action Item E and F were approved unanimously; Action Items G through O, which all pertained to the bond resolution, were approved Unanimously; P (approval of agreement with Syntax Company) was tabled at the request of Trustee Labatte for discussion at the next meeting; Items Q through V (agreements and contracts involving Special Education services and consultants) were approved unanimously .