Extra $1M in state aid means funds for P. C. school 'needs'
Thursday, April 03, 2014 12:00 PM
Almost everybody wins in the proposed 2014-15 Port Chester school budget: homeowners, parents, students and staff. Most taxpayers should see a reduction in their school taxes or-in the worst case scenario which can hardly be called that-no increase from this year thanks to the shift in assessments and New York State budget, respectively. Courtesy of an additional $1 million in state aid, needs at all of the district's schools that could not previously be afforded can now be funded at no cost to the local taxpayers.
The new state aid, which the schools found out about last weekend, means that the tax levy will remain the same and at the tax levy cap, but the budget will increase because of this new revenue. The new 2014-15 spending plan is about $88.4 million, a budget-to-budget increase of 3.8%.
Last week, parents and all of the district's union presidents demanded that any additional state aid go to benefit students rather than taxpayers as many of them lobbied hard for those funds, such as King Street School PTA Co-president Liz Rotfeld.
"I worked very hard to get those letters together," the Betsy Brown Road resident said, referring to the stacks of signed letters the community sent to Albany. "I certainly didn't work for restoring taxpayers the money. I did that as a parent to help our children."
Parent Steve Simmons urged the school board to invest state aid now as a way to recover from past cuts. The idea of giving money back to taxpayers, in his opinion, would only be "a political parlor trick."
Furthermore, many of those who spoke out at the Mar. 26 meeting urged the board not to cut anything that was already included.
"I worry every spring-every spring- that we'll panic about our admittedly always precarious financial situation and that we'll cut back on or worse cut out the very soul of what makes our children love to attend our schools," said Elise Lemire of Lafayette Drive in defense of non-mandated arts and music programs.
"To suggest any cuts to the current rollover budget is to jeopardize the potential success that our district seeks for all students," said Robert Reese of Munson Street. "I really want to reiterate that: a cut to the budget is essentially a cut to a child's chance at success."
"For too long it seems like we've been cannibalizing ourselves," he added. "Reinstated aid belongs to our students. Don't play games with it."
An extra $1M from Albany
The Board of Education heard the public comments and took them to heart, and when Albany came through with additional funds, the school board delivered, too. The reason for so much excitement about the state aid is that none of the new additions will impact the tax levy.
State Senator George Latimer said the effort from the community really made a difference in securing the extra $1 million. "There was a strong case to be made for Port Chester," he said.
Before the school board could get to the fun part of allocating those dollars, however, the board members participated in a line item budget review on Monday, Mar. 31, just hours after the state budget, and consequently the state aid, was approved. After going through the proposed spending plan line-by-line, the school board members submitted 60 questions and requests for clarification to Assistant Superintendent Maura McAward, who dutifully went through them all.
While most of the points ultimately resulted in little or no change, one item did cause a shift in the 2014-15 budget. Board Vice President Carolee Brakewood asked about the revenue gained from the space rented by the Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) at the middle school as the idea of reducing the rental space for district programming had come up several times this school year.
After looking into the subject in-depth, McAward recommended decreasing the space leased to BOCES by about half. Currently two special education classes are sharing one classroom and there has been interest from two out-of-district students who would pay tuition to attend the Port Chester School District. Already there are more students in the one classroom than is ideal and there is no room for the tuition students. Reclaiming one cluster, which includes two classrooms and other space like changing rooms, would "increase the quality of education" provided to the district's special education students who are forced to share the single room, McAward said.
Furthermore, she added, because of the mitigating effect of the two potential students, the net loss to the district by reclaiming one of the clusters would only be $55,000, about half what it normally would be. This also will allow the middle school to reclaim a general classroom, which will allow one teacher who previously floated between classrooms to have a permanent home and assist with rising enrollment and overcrowding in the school.
How to spend the new money?
Because of slight changes to the proposed spending plan during the line-by-line-the BOCES rental change being the most impactful-the school board ultimately had about $976,000 to work with from the newly allotted $1,006,070. That state aid allows for new programs and teachers as well as returning programs that ended up on the chopping block in past years when the district had to tighten its belt.
The girls' swim team, which was started this year thanks to a grant obtained by a former student, will be reinstated next year, something that both parents and school board members wanted.
"I think it's a really valuable sport and I think it's something we should continue to support and I hope you agree," Mary Strauch of Glendale Place said. The mother of two students in the district said the program was started by a student, which is a point of pride for the district. "She made it happen. Let's not spoil her vision and cut it."
Originally the girls' swim program was not going to be renewed, but it, as well as a boys' team, are now on the books for next year. Mandatory PSAT testing for all 11th grade students organized by the high school, at Brakewood's recommendation, has also been brought back after being eliminated about five years ago.
As to new programs, there is now seed money for an Intel science research program. The idea, put forth by board member Tom Corbia, will start the process and provide for necessary professional development. While $20,000 is budgeted now, a full implementation of the program several years down the line could cost $165,000. After a discussion about possibly sponsoring a Mock Trial club, the board ultimately decided to set aside $8,000 for extracurricular opportunities at the high school. The student body can opt to start up Mock Trial or pick something else for which there is great interest.
All other additions came from administrators throughout the district who put together a list of "needs" early on in the budget process. The district, however, could not afford to fund them while staying within the tax levy cap and these "needs" were put aside for future years. With the announcement of the extra state aid, the administrators took that initial list and pared it down to the extreme priorities. "There's not enough to have everything we need," McAward said.
Most of the truncated list-although not all-made it this time around and is included in the proposed budget. Making the community school coordinator at Park Avenue School a full-time position and hiring enough teachers to fully eliminate study halls at the middle school will have to be put off for another time.
Port Chester Middle School did get one teacher to help reduce class sizes and also stands to gain a foreign language teacher. Without that addition, foreign language classes would have been in the low 30s.
Come next school year, John F. Kennedy School is slated to get a bilingual psychologist and Park Avenue School and Edison School will each get a Home Language Arts teacher for English Language Learners. Currently, those two elementary schools are "borderline," Superintendent Dr. Edward Kliszus, Jr. said, and "not really in compliance in bilingual education." The two additions will allow the schools to fully comply with education guidelines.
At Port Chester High School, enough money has been set aside for teachers so that study halls can be replaced with advanced and elective courses and department supervisors will be available to assist with instructional observations and evaluations for high school teachers. Principal Dr. Mitchell Combs, the only audience member still remaining at that point in the public meeting, said he welcomed the opportunity that both changes will allow him.
With all those changes, there was exactly $3,361 left. At Board Member Jim Dreves' suggestion, it was added to the line for preventative maintenance, something that has often seen the brunt of past budgets. It was a place the board knew they could cut if they had to, he said. This was an opportunity to reverse that trend and instead add a little back into that fund.
Previously, three teachers at the middle school were approved to establish another 7th grade academy based on the enrollment and class sizes that would have reached 35 students in some of them. Similarly, a special education teacher was added to King Street School. These positions were allocated with money already in the budget before the addition of the $1 million in state aid.
In total, the district will now receive about $2.4 million more in state aid compared to this year's amount. McAward described that increase as "the likes of which not ever seen" by the Port Chester School District.
Concern over the future
Dreves expressed concern about adding new programs and salaried positions which are not one-time costs and will have to continually be funded by the district. He worried they would be difficult to maintain in a tax levy cap world.
McAward said that if the district has to cut in the future, then it will, but the money is available now and the school board should not "say no today in deference for tomorrow."
"You can't deny today's students based on fear," Brakewood added.
Board Member Bob Johnson said he believes state aid to Port Chester will continue in a similar manner as it is difficult for the state to pull back.
Given the economy is slowly recovering and pension costs hopefully will stop rising at such extreme rates, the school district could see relief there in the next couple years, McAward added.
At the end of the line item review, which McAward called "the most satisfying line-by-line I've ever attended," Corbia said he found the process very useful. Corbia, who requested the line-by-line be brought back this year after several budget seasons without one, added that he hopes the board continues to hold one in future years.
The school board will vote to adopt the budget, with these new changes, at its next meeting on Wednesday, Apr. 9 at 7 p. m. in room 229 at Port Chester High School.