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Community Organizations Comment on the Proposed 2021-22 Scarsdale School Budget

volunteerCommunity organizations voiced support for the proposed 2021-22 Scarsdale School Budget at the Board of Education meeting on Monday night March 23. Here is the full text of the comments on the budget from the League of Women Voters of Scarsdale, The Scarsdale High School PTA and the Scarsdale Council of Parent-Teachers Associations.

League of Women Voters of Scarsdale

The League of Women Voters of Scarsdale (the “League”) thanks members of the Board of Education (the “Board”) and District Administration (the “Administration”) for participating in a panel at the League’s General Membership Meeting and School Budget Information Session and addressing questions on the Proposed School Budget 2021-22 (the “Budget”) on March 11, 2021 via Zoom.

The following statement reflects the consensus of League members at a Consensus Meeting held immediately following the Information Session.

Position

The League supports the Scarsdale School District Proposed Budget for 2021-22 and recommends that the community vote “yes” to approve the proposed Budget on Tuesday, May 18, 2021 at Scarsdale Middle School. The League offers its comments and recommendations regarding certain budgetary items as well as the budget process, which we hope will be considered as this year’s Budget is revised and finalized, and in future budgets.

Budget Overview and Noteworthy Features

The proposed Budget is $166,862,755, with a budget-to-budget increase of 2.56% and a tax levy growth of 2.15%. Per the Administration, the estimated taxpayer impact for the current average assessed property valued at $1,595,700 would be: $455 for Scarsdale residents (representing a 1.93% tax rate increase) and $1460 for Mamaroneck residents (representing a 6.28% tax rate increase).

According to the Administration, the Budget accomplishes the following:

-Maintenance of high-quality teaching and learning consistent with the Strategic Plan.
-Implementation of a Covid-19 Budget Strategy.
-Advancement of in-district instructional opportunities for students with disabilities.
-Continuation of a comprehensive approach to Safety, Security and Emergency Management.
-Enhancement of district cleaning protocols at all elementary schools.
-The improvement and upgrade of facilities.

The proposed Budget reflects a 7.6 FTE net increase District-wide from 2020-21. This includes:

-1.0 FTE Special Education Integrated Co-Teacher at the elementary level,
-1.0 FTE Special Education Learning Resource Center Teacher at the high school,
-0.4 FTE Speech Teacher at the high school,
-0.2 FTE Psychologist’s Secretary at the middle school, and
-5.0 FTE Cleaners, one at each elementary school.

CommendationsLeagueLogo

The League acknowledges, with appreciation, the substantial time and effort that goes into developing the proposed Budget and thanks the Administration and Board for their additional effort spent in preparing for our March 11th Information Session. The League would like to commend the panel at this year’s League Information Session for their participation.

Additionally, the League commends the Administration for making the Budget Book available early in the budget development process. The Budget Book allows a comprehensive view of the myriad components of the Budget and through this tool there is an enhanced understanding of the Budget itself.

The League is also appreciative that the Administration continues to include League Budget questions and Administration responses on the District website as a public resource.

Comments and Recommendations

Unassigned Fund Balance/Reserves

The League supports a general approach to budgeting to ensure the stability of school finances and appreciates the Administration’s acknowledgement that the undesignated fund balance at a projected 2.8%, which would be the lowest level it’s been since 2006-2007, is a concern. As discussed at the Information Session, the League understands that the Administration is aware of the low fund balance and supports their stated goal of replenishing the fund balance as soon as it is reasonably possible to do so.

The League notes that, as recently as 2015, the Administration, with the support of the community, took measures to rebalance and stabilize the budget and thereby address a 2014 Moody’s downgrade that was related to the declining fund balance and over-reliance on non-recurring revenue. Furthermore, the League understands that the credit rating can be negatively affected if either the undesignated reserve or total fund balance drops below a certain threshold, an important factor in the ability to issue bonds in the future.

Covid-Contingency Plan

The League appreciates the Administration’s forethought in implementing a Covid-contingency plan within the 2021-22 proposed budget. This includes an $800,000 allocation in budgetary appropriations funded by assigned fund balance (no tax impact), as follows:

-$220,000 for additional staffing of 2.0 FTE teachers for remote learning, supplemented by an additional 1.0 FTE contingent as part of the regular budget.
-$330,000 for unanticipated non-recurring costs associated with Covid-19 including instructional or general support type expenses.
-$250,000 for the introduction of an Elementary Summer Enrichment Program (2021).

The League hopes that the Administration will continue to plan proactively for different possible scenarios next year including the likelihood that students will not be fully vaccinated, at least in the fall. Busing students safely with recommended social distancing mitigation, traffic and safety issues at the schools should students elect to forego busing, and the logistics of lunch service are of particular concern. The League recognizes that the unpredictability of the virus combined with changing and conflicting guidelines create many challenges and appreciates the extremely hard work of all involved in Covid planning.

The League would like to acknowledge the foresight of the Administration in offering a Summer Enrichment Program in light of lost instructional time due to this past year’s hybrid and remote learning models. The League encourages the Administration to proactively engage in outreach to students who might benefit the most from its Summer Enrichment Program. Beyond the summer, the League encourages the Administration to clearly and proactively communicate a plan to assess and address the student needs that have emerged as a result of schooling during a global pandemic. The League is concerned that particularly in light of remote and hybrid learning this past year, students at all grade levels may need additional support on multiple fronts. This may vary from social-emotional to academic, and the League encourages the Administration to continue to monitor and support students as needed.

Staffing and Support of Social-Emotional and Mental Health of Students

The League notes that a Scarsdale education has long been regarded as a leader amongst its peers, and we recommend that the Administration continue to aspire to educational leadership. The League notes that the Administration continues to support the elementary class size policy and the middle school house structure. The League continues to recommend supporting traditional class sizes and norms at all levels in order to ensure a classroom environment most conducive to student learning and the achievement of the Administration’s educational goals as outlined in the Strategic Plan.

The League reiterates that classroom teachers are the first line of defense in regard to observing student social-emotional issues, and a teacher’s ability to detect and address problems or refer the student to a counselor must be supported by appropriate staffing. The League is concerned about student social-emotional and mental health needs being met as we move into the next school year and we encourage the Administration to continue to reexamine the social-emotional needs of all students.

In addition, the League recommends that the Administration and Board continue to provide appropriate staffing to protect the high academic standards of the high school. In light of conversations regarding student social-emotional issues at the high school, the League is concerned about an increased student per dean/guidance counselor ratio, and we ask the Administration to look more closely at the trend. The League believes staffing should be reflective of an underlying high school culture that supports academic choice, allows each student to forge a personal connection to an educator and provides a safe, healthy environment in which students can develop and grow.

The League continues to encourage the Administration to communicate proactively and clearly with the parent community and the community at large regarding the importance of supporting special education students in Scarsdale schools. We would like the Administration to continue to address appropriate staffing needs as current elementary-aged special education students move through the Scarsdale school system and to support needed staff adequately as enrollment in special education continues to trend higher and more in line with neighboring districts.

Plant and Capital Improvements

The total Plant/Capital Improvements budget for 2021-22 is $1,115,000. This is $374,000 less than the prior year combined Capital and Maintenance Plant Improvement budgets and $1,429,000 less than the 2019-20 year. Especially in light of Covid expenses and future revenue uncertainties, this conservative approach for 2021-22 seems prudent. However the League would like to reiterate from past statements that given that several of our schools were built over a century ago, thoughtful facilities planning and capital improvement are of utmost importance. Our buildings must maintain and enhance student learning and be safe, sustainable and flexible spaces able to support 21st century innovation and future programs.

The League appreciates the Administration’s work evaluating air quality and flow in our schools and supplementing with HEPA units in areas as needed. The League encourages the Administration to continue prioritizing upgrades to HVAC systems as planned at Edgewood, Fox Meadow and Scarsdale High School and continue exploring both traditional and innovative cooling solutions. The League appreciates the Administration pursuing “Green” energy such as the LED lighting in the Edgewood and Fox Meadow hallways included in the 2021-22 plant improvement budget, which will help to offset carbon footprint impact of increased air conditioning.

Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment

The League values Scarsdale schools’ educational leadership. The preservation of educational leadership requires a strong and proactive commitment to continuously enhance our educational program, K-12, while keeping the community informed. The League appreciates the Administration’s anticipation that assessment of impacts of this past year will guide the work in this area going forward, and encourages the Administration to communicate clearly and proactively its assessments and plans to the school community. The proposed Staff and Curricular Development budget line is $1,510,927, a budget-to-budget increase of 7.61% and a proposed budget-to-projected expense increase of $228,180 or 17.79%.

The League encourages the Administration to continue to pursue goals in wellness, sustainability and especially commends the work being done to incorporate values of diversity, equity and inclusion into the curriculum.

Advocacy

As per the Board President, the Board has liaisons to both the NYS School Board Association and the Westchester Putnam School Board Association. It was further indicated that other Board members, including the Board President, have attended virtual meetings with elected representatives and have attended webinars on critical advocacy topics, such as: Covid-19 obstacles and recovery, public education funding (NYS Education Budget) and cost containment. The Board is not currently engaged in advocacy at the federal level.

The League appreciates the Board’s efforts to increase its level of advocacy this year; however, the League continues to strongly encourage the Board and the Administration as a whole to be leaders in advocacy at both the state and local levels. The League strongly recommends that the Administration and Board continue to monitor the many legislative issues that currently affect Scarsdale schools and public schools in general.

Budget Process/Community Engagement

virtualcoffeeThe League commends the Board for creating the opportunity for continued public input into the Budget. The League believes that a more complete picture of community feedback, combined with relevant expert opinions and research, will serve to enhance Board decisions on complex issues and their implementation. This will then serve to facilitate community understanding and appreciation of Scarsdale schools. The League appreciates the Board’s efforts to open new avenues of engagement with all stakeholders in the community through the formation of a Community Engagement Sub-Committee. Furthermore, the League supports efforts to engage in Board coffees or focus groups as discussed by the Board President at our Information Session.

The League strongly encourages the Board to continue to work to be proactive and transparent to ensure community trust in the Board process.

We thank all members of the Administration and Board for consideration of our statement. The League looks forward to the release of the Board’s final Budget iteration resulting from having considered community comments.

Sincerely,

Suzie Hahn, LWVS School Budget Portfolio Chair
Leah Dembitzer, LWVS President

Scarsdale High School PTA

The Scarsdale High School PTA Executive Committee appreciates the efforts of the District Administration and Board of Education in preparing a budget that is fiscally responsible, while facing the complexity of stewarding our schools throughout this pandemic. We thank the members of the Board of Education for their dedication and for giving us this opportunity to comment on the proposed 2021-2022 School District Budget.

We are grateful that this budget plan contemplates a return to full time in person learning for all our students this September. We know that in person instruction will begin to alleviate the social isolation and emotional challenges that our students have been experiencing.

This unprecedented year, however, has left its mark upon the well-being of our high school students and faculty. Health experts have identified an alarming, increased incidence of mental health disorders, including anxiety, depression, substance abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder. We also recognize that even our most well-adjusted students are suffering from emotional loss; some have lost milestone moments, relationships or loved ones; others have lost a sense of purpose and engagement. Our return to full-time in person instruction will undoubtedly reveal increased numbers of students who are struggling and need support services, suggesting the need for additional resources to be budgeted for the upcoming 2021-22 cycle.

Our school district has an exceptionally talented team of mental health professionals who we thank for their dedication and ceaseless work identifying and supporting students who are coping with mental health issues. We ask the Board of Education and the District Administration to carefully anticipate the work that lies ahead and allocate adequate human and financial resources to both address the immediate needs of students struggling with mental health and enable the delivery of school-wide programs and services aimed at fostering growth and resilience in all of our students. It has been said that “out of adversity comes opportunity” (Ben Franklin). We urge the Board and District Administration to seize this opportunity by demonstrating their commitment to the complete health and well-being of our students and staff, one of the pillars of the District’s Strategic Plan, by providing adequate funds for this coming year.

Separately, the PTA Executive Committee supports the addition of a full-time special education teacher to serve the increasing number of students who qualify for Learning Resource Center Support. This staffing addition will further our resolve to preserve small class sizes and ensure that students of all learning styles are able to access the general curriculum and thus benefit from a Scarsdale Education. This addition will also further the stated goal of keeping our District’s special education students in the Scarsdale School District. We applaud the Board for continuing to place all our students at the center of budget planning.

We further support the addition of a 0.4 FTE speech and language pathologist at the high school which will convert the current part-time position to full-time. This is not only necessary to accommodate the numbers of students requiring this service, but will afford those students the suitable modality and amount of service they need. Converting this staff position to a full- time position will also ensure that the District will not only be able to find qualified candidates, but will be able to retain them.

We recognize that this may not be the optimal time (or budget year) to advocate for the complete renovation of the high auditoriumschool auditorium however, we remind the Board and the community that the high school auditorium is one of the most highly used facilities in the entire district and has been slated for renovation for over ten years. The high school PTA fully supports the continued renovation of the high school auditorium in economically controlled phases and tax neutral as contemplated by the proposed budget. We are grateful to the Board and the Administration for including Phase One of this renovation in the budget for the current school year which we understand will include most of the repairs related to safety, such as rigging and electrical upgrades.

Thank you to the administration, and in particular Stuart Mattey, for allocating a portion of the Debt Service Reserve Fund to Phase 2a of the Auditorium Project which will include replacement of the stage lighting with energy efficient LED fixtures enabling the district to recoup this cost over time, and which we remind everyone will have zero impact on the tax levy. We urge the District and the Board to keep the continuation of the high school auditorium renovation at the forefront of future budget planning until it is fully completed as envisioned.

The Scarsdale High School PTA Executive Committee supports the 2021-2022 Budget but urges the Board to consider whether adequate mental health resources exist in the proposed budget and if not, amend the budget to allocate additional resources to address the emotional and mental health of our students. We thank the Board and the District Administration for budgeting within the tax cap while maintaining its investment in the core values which comprise the excellence of the Scarsdale Schools.

Thank you,

Leanne Freda, President
Joey Silberfein, President-elect
Lauren Grossberg Budget Study Chair
Jennifer Rossano, VP Programming and Volunteers
Rokaya Hassaballa, VP Membership
Events Chyi Landless, Treasurer

Scarsdale Council Of Parent-Teacher Associations

The PT Council Executive Committee and the PT Council Budget Study Chairs thank the District Administration and Board of Education for once again incorporating the November budget overview/preview and today’s community budget forum in the schedule. We also thank the Administration for responding to our many written questions about the preliminary budget proposal. We value the Administration’s efforts to update the current budget development page on the District website, to post promptly the most recent recordings of Board meetings, and to maintain the historical files for the community’s reference and edification.

We welcomed the Board’s March 15, 2021, email to community group leaders on matters concerning the budget and appreciate the message as a first step in implementing the recommendation by the Board’s Committee on Community Engagement. We encourage both the Administration and the Board to utilize additional proactive measures earlier in the budget development process to gather feedback, not just from community leaders, but also parents, students, and individuals in the community. We suggest earlier, targeted outreach to ascertain community priorities and taxpayer tolerance, particularly for new recurring or significant one-time expenditures. Such efforts are essential for obtaining community support and will benefit all parties by leaving sufficient time in the process to refine plans in the event of community resistance to particular components of the budget.

As we have expressed previously, the current practice of waiting until the date of the Board meeting/budget study session to post agendas and materials typically does not allow sufficient time for process-oriented community groups to digest and reflect on the information and craft a thoughtful response for the evening’s public comment period and Board discussion. Reverting to past practice of posting agendas and supporting documents no later than the Friday before the Monday meetings would address that issue and perhaps foster a more informed and measured public response from all those wishing to be heard. Similarly, just as many teachers and students have implemented asynchronous learning opportunities this year, we encourage the Administration and Board to consider the utility to the community of recording and making the full series of budget presentations available on demand in advance of the budget study sessions.

We acknowledge the Administration’s and Board’s cautious approach to budgeting for the many unknowns of the pandemic school year. We also appreciate the attention to minimizing spikes and dips that would impact the taxpayers.

We support the continued use of fund balance only for non-recurring surprises and the calculated decision to discontinue past practice of relying on surplus to fund anticipated or annual costs. We encourage the District to restore the unassigned fund balance back to recommended levels of close to the 4% limit as soon as practicable.

The PTC EC fully supports the addition of the 1.0 elementary special education teacher, the 1.0 high school special education teacher, the .4 high school speech pathologist, and the .2 middle school psychologist secretary position to support our most vulnerable student population.

Given the many competing budgetary needs, we are not unified in opinion about the decision to prioritize the proposed addition of 5 full time elementary school cleaners as an annually recurring staffing measure after the pandemic is over.
We are concerned by the deferment of so many longstanding capital projects until the 2026/27 bond and the noticeable decline in the percent of the budget allocated annually towards capital projects. The District has an aging infrastructure and long wish-list of requested improvements.

The PTC EC thanks you for providing an updated plan for the high school auditorium. However, we continue to advocate for a public facilities master plan, updated in real time, consisting of a running list of the many other capital projects under consideration, projected costs, and rationales. The wish list of past years has included items such as the A-School and CHOICE buildings, the high school learning resource center, multipurpose space and fitness center expansion at the middle school, large group spaces for collaborative work between elementary classrooms, food preparation areas at elementary schools that lack kitchens, playground renovations, classroom casement, storage, and furniture, and the Heathcote office. More recently, additional building-level requests have also included lockers, ventilation improvements, outdoor group spaces for instruction, and technology classroom and library improvements at the middle school. The upcoming building conditions survey may identify yet additional items. District-wide public discussion is appropriate for ascertaining whether, how, and when to address these facilities wants and needs.

We encourage the District to identify potential energy savings from changes to heating, cooling, lighting, and other GA8equipment. While we understand the decision this past year to pause the District Sustainability Committee’s exploration of long term cooling solutions, alternative energy sources, environmentally friendly food service and waste disposal practices (e.g., feasibility and utility of reintroduction of dishwashers in lieu of compostable plates and utensils, composting on site), we are eager for the District to resume its efforts during the next year. We look forward to hearing the District’s recommendations and proposed funding for these plans.

The PTC EC urges the Administration and Board to reconsider implementing the transportation study that had been recommended, included, yet ultimately removed from the budget several times in the past few cycles. This study could yield future savings by identifying potential areas for efficiencies and could likewise have a positive non-financial impact for our families if done in coordination with Village efforts to improve traffic congestion and safety for student pedestrians and bicyclists going to and from school on Village roads. These long standing problems have been exacerbated by the pandemic-related reduction in student use of bus transportation. A thorough exploration of efficiencies to be gained through incentivizing expanded bus ridership when safe to do so as well as adjustments to routes and mileage limits is overdue.

We encourage the District to collaborate with the Village on issues surrounding improved cellular reception in and around the schools and to reinstate the discussions that had been put on hold this past year.

We support the District’s funding of a summer program and using internal experts and hiring external consultants to help evaluate the social-emotional and academic impact of the pandemic on students. We encourage the District to be transparent with the results of such evaluation and to ensure it has satisfactory staff to address the identified shortfalls and issues. Similarly, in light of pandemic-hastened changes to the use of standardized test scores in the college admissions process and the elimination of the College Board’s SAT II tests, next year does appear to be an opportune time to review the AT program and revisit the AT vs. AP decision as the District has planned.

The District has benefitted from shrewd technology budgeting practices, securing favorable grants and leases to fund equipment needs. We hope the District’s efforts to harness benefits and efficiencies born out of necessity during the pandemic, such as improved attention to digital literacy and increased collaboration and communication among the Administration, faculty, and staff, will have lasting effects after the pandemic ends.

The increases to the athletic expenditures of the past few years have undoubtedly enhanced safety and improved the experience for members of certain high school sports teams. Nevertheless, in light of the many non-athletic budgetary requests that did not make the final cut, further scrutiny may be warranted to ensure that extracurricular high school activities are funded appropriately relative to the needs of academic/curricular programs and non-athletic extracurricular clubs and that school teams are funded equitably across sports and genders.

Thank you in advance for taking our comments into consideration as you finalize the budget. We appreciate your openness to feedback, your increased focus on community engagement, and your impressive dedication and efforts in a year that has tested everyone’s limits.

Sincerely,

Diane E. Baylor and Chris Marks, 2020-21 PT Council Budget Study Co-Chairs
Dalya Khan, 2020-21 PT Council President
Megan Simon, 2020-21 PT Council President-Elect
Kerry Hayes, 2020-21 PT Council Secretary
Stephanie Stern, 2020-21 PT Council Treasurer
Leanne Freda, 2020-21 Scarsdale High School PTA President
Meredith Kent, 2020-21 Scarsdale Middle School PTA President
Jeanette Rosen and Stephen Baer, 2020-21 Edgewood PTA Co-Presidents
Alyse Streicher, 2020-21 Fox Meadow PTA President
Jennifer Fischer, 2020-21 Greenacres PTA President
Jessica Rosenberg, 2020-21 Heathcote PTA President
Meryl Satler, 2020-21 Quaker Ridge PTA President

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