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shs2After the coronavirus hit and economic fears grew, there was pressure on the Scarsdale School Board and School Administration to re-evaluate the proposed 20-21 school budget, which called for a 3.43% budget to budget increase and a 3.23% increase in the tax levy. With statutory deadlines looming, the administration acted quickly to come up with a proposed list of reductions which they presented to the Board of Education at their March 23 meeting.

The roughly $3.7 million in proposed reductions included cuts to facilities, program improvements and professional development and also offered up some efficiencies. Though the school budget is 80% salaries, and 20% “other expenses” all of these reductions were derived from the non-salary portion of the budget. The $3.7mm reduction cut the tax levy increase dramatically and would have meant a 1.45% tax levy increase over 2019-20.

At the conclusion of the 3-23 meeting, the Board asked the administration to look even further and “leave no stone unturned.” The general sentiment appeared to be, “show us what else might have been on that list.” They also asked the administration to consider decreasing the size of the faculty and staff through attrition, consolidation of work or examination of the teacher load.

One week later, on March 30, the administration returned to the table with a defense of the current budget, an explanation of the underlying assumptions and a recommendation to maintain the 3-23 budget, or possibly re-instate some of the proposed cuts.

At the outset of the meeting, Board President Pam Fuehrer announced that a new decision from the Governor delayed the calendar. The board no longer has to approve the budget by April 30 and the election will be put off from May to June. This removed some of the pressure for the board to make decisions quickly, given the changing landscape. The Board will hold another budget meeting on April 20.

Assistant Superintendent Drew Patrick reviewed district staffing, demonstrating why all faculty, civil service staff and administrators were essential to the district’s mission. He had given a similar presentation at the outset of budget planning in January and reiterated many of underlying principals such as class size, the staffing requirements for the middle school house system, the need for flexibility and electives at the high school and the implementation of extra reading support in the younger grades and the STEAM program in the older grades that all required staffing.

He explained that the “total personnel increases over the last ten years are a result of work that the district has prioritized... the civil service staff has stayed the same – except of an additional nurse at the high school and two cleaning staffers due to the expansion of the high school.

StaffingMarch30

He went through the staffing of each of the seven district schools, explaining that overall “We have 4,745 students, 25 administrators and 458.4 teachers.” For next year, two contingency teaching positions are in the budget, one of which is already needed for a special education kindergarten class.

In response to the Board’s question about not filling vacancies, Patrick explained that the work of civil servants cannot be redistributed. He then outlined the impact of cutting faculty and staff to show the effect on the program and on the students. For instance, if we cut a bus driver, students would have significantly longer ride time to and from school. Cutting teachers at the high school results in a decrease in flexibility, increase in class size and perhaps fewer elective choices. If the district fails to replace the Public Relations person who is retiring, the district could not produce the “Insight” newsletter or board meeting highlights, would be less responsive to the press and would have less website content and social media presence.

He defended the staffing plan saying, “it is not based on excess – but built on excellence. We have been tempered and deliberate with staffing… teachers can’t teach more sections…We can’t cut without changing our fundamental assumptions.” He concluded, “The Cabinet recommends no personnel cuts.”

Assistant Superintendent Stuart Mattey then presented the list of the proposed $3.7 million in reductions, categorizing them into four groups and explained:

Efficiencies – “We support these because they do not affect the curriculum or can be deferred.”

New Items – “These will stall progress on well thought out program improvements.”

Safety – “Enhancements to the physical plant to improve safety.”

Support for Core – “These items maintain the excellence of our core program.” He added, “If these are excised, we believe there should be a commitment to re-instate them.”

The numbers for these four groups of proposed budget reductions were as follows:

Total Efficiencies - -$459,000 (including a $250,000 reduction in fuel oil.)

Total New Items -$553,722 (including plant improvements at the bus compound and Butler Field sound system

Total Safety - -$143,800 (for gates, bollards and phase 2 glass mitigation)

Core Educational Support –$2,514,156 (including high school auditorium, professional development, summer curriculum and the early pay-off of the computer lease.)

Technology Director Jerry Crisci explained that the department’s total hardware budget is $1.5 million which includes the $400,000 for the lease. He said, “If we can’t make it up next year, no instructional devices can be bought for that year.”

Scott Silbefein suggested that the district might use surpluses from this year to fund some one-time expenses. Carl Finger clarified, the savings, saying “By paying off the lease, we are just paying off this year what we could pay next year. So we’re still spending the same amount of money.”

Mattey then presented three budget proposals, one with the core items, one without the core item and another with the core items minus the auditorium to show the tax impact of each of these scenarios. See all the assumptions here:

Mattey also discussed some unknowns given the uncertainty of the state’s finances. He said, “The shortfall for the state budget could be $15 billion – up from the previous estimate of $4 billion. The state has already spent $1 billion on the coronavirus. The Governor says state aid to schools may be reduced and may be paid quarterly. After the 2008 crisis it took 5-6 years to get the money we were due from the state.” He added, “The total state aid for the district is $7 million but it could be reduced by $700,000.”

Furthermore, the state could require the district to use a contingent budget, no higher than the prior year. Also unknown is the impact of the crisis on the district’s contributions to the Teachers Retirement System and Employees Retirement System.

In the Board discussion that followed Board Vice President Alison Singer said, “The core principles that defines a Scarsdale education have to be maintained. I support deferring the auditorium and maintenance work but do not want to eliminate programs, faculty or alter class sizes. Education is now more crucial than ever. I do support taking down the budget to a 1.44% increase by eliminating the auditorium, the .4 position at the middle school and one contingency position and paying the computer lease.”

Karen Ceske said, “I agree with much of what Alison just said. Our experience has shown us the importance of school to students and families. The reputation of the schools is important to our real estate as well.”

Carl Finger said, “I would like to hear from the community. I don’t think anyone wants to diminish the education or make a substantial change. Now is not the time to look into cutting staff. We don’t know what the future will hold. In a year there may still be tough decisions that need to be made…the reality is we are trimming around the edges. We are only talking about a few hundred dollars (on the average resident’s tax bill.)

Chris Morin said, “Any one year’s budget is not as important as the long-term projection and sustainability. What I found a little distressing tonight is that we built this system that has so little resilience that even in an economic downturn with falling enrollment we can’t conceive of letting headcount drift down by a couple of tenths of a percent and we think it is draconian to get by with an above inflation increase. I think we need to do a much better job of long-term planning and pursue some of the things that make the system so inflexible, whether it’s state mandate relief, or county civil service reform or union flexibility. When things calm down a bit I think we need to ensure that we are building a sustainable school district that works for everybody. But for now I agree with what I have heard and support the direction that we’re headed."

Ron Schulhof said, “The Governor has given us the gift of time. We have to consider that this 1.44 (tax increase) increase could shift – state aid, and sales tax may change. We could get hit with tax certs. (About the computer lease he said,) “I do not think we should pay it off.” We are setting up a future board for a major increase. It is a core educational component.”

Scott Silberfein said, “I would like to take another look at our fund balance and see what opportunities we might have there. Using fund balance to pay for the computer lease may be more meaningful down the road. We don’t know a lot tonight. If we lose $5 million of our $7 million in state aid, we will have more to discuss.”

Board President Pam Fuehrer said, “We are not looking to adjust core philosophies. I know we will look at fund balance again. We will track our surpluses – those will change as well and I want to keep them in mind.”

During the public comments section, Leah Dembitzer, President of the League of Women Voters of Scarsdale read the following statement on behalf of the League's Board of Directors:

League of Women Voters of Scarsdale Board of Directors
Comment on School Budget Re: Staffing March 30, 2020

In light of last week’s Board of Education budget discussion regarding staffing, contingency positions and class size, the League Board would like to emphasize the paramount importance of protecting our educators and students. The League Board supports investment in staffing our schools appropriately, including budgeting for contingency positions to support current elementary class size practices. We support budget choices that link to Scarsdale educational values and include reflection on teaching and learning.

The League Board recommends adherence to established elementary school class size maximums (22 students in grades K-3 and 24 students in grades 4-5); including support services for special education as well as sufficient mental and emotional health staffing for middle school students; and a commitment to high school class size norms that supports student choice, teacher availability, the protection of teacher course load and appropriate staffing to support the mental, social-emotional health of our high school students, especially in light of the current unprecedented health crisis affecting us all.

At a time when additional models for delivery of educational services to students are being implemented, the League Board recommends that the Board of Education and Administration engage in practices that ensure that all student needs are met.

The League Board strongly encourages the Board of Education to consider the continued importance of staffing levels and the preservation of class size norms as these issues affect student experience, protect student wellness, enhance teaching and learning, promote enrichment and reflect core values of the Scarsdale Schools.

The Scarsdale High School PTA Executive Committee also made comments. See their letter here:

Mary Beth Evans and Dan Moretti of Edgewood Road also read comments: See them here:

BudgetcutsThe second virtual Scarsdale School Board budget study session on March 23 ended with more questions than answers as the school administration and school board sought to come to consensus on a 2020-21 school budget. After schools closed and the COVID-19 crisis hit the community in early March, the economic forecast shifted dramatically and the board and administration agreed to revise the proposed budget to reflect the new reality. At the time, the budget was set to rise 3.43% over the prior year, translating to a 3.23% rise in the tax levy.

At the close of the March 18 the Board asked Dr. Hagerman and his cabinet to take another look at the budget and come back to the table with some suggested reductions.

In response, the administration came to the meeting with a long list of proposed cuts totaling $3,608,068. These cuts, along with a decision by the Board of Education not to add $250,000 more to the health insurance budget, would result in a dramatically reduced budget that would be an increase of 1.14% over the prior year and cause the tax levy to rise by 1.45% over 2019-20.

On the list, among other items were the high school auditorium ($1,950,000), the sound system for Butler Field ($49,000) and security items, including gates, bollards and phase 2 of glass mitigation for $143,800. Savings of $406,000 will come from paying off the current year’s computer lease. Also eliminated was a proposed new part-time assistant to the psychologist at the middle school. See the full list here:

Before opening discussion of the suggested reductions, Assistant Superintendent Stuart Mattey provided some insights into school budgeting calling it a “a deliberative process that looked for budget efficiencies.” He cautioned that budget reductions could have a compounding impact on future budgets,” and that “reducing the budget without eliminating an offsetting expense and using the fund balance is a one-time unsustainable strategy.” Deferring repairs on facilities in one year can cause an increase to the budget in subsequent years.

He outlined some looming questions posed by the advent of the crisis:

Will the district have a public vote on the proposed budget?
Will there be an option for voters to cast their ballots (absentee/online or by mail?)
Will the state mandate holding the budget flat from last year?
Will state aid be reduced and if so, how much
What will be the impact on both TRS and ERS?
Will the Federal Stimulus Package have a positive impact?
How long will the district be closed and what will be the positive impact on the budget?
What is the impact on self-funded health plan of COVID-19?
Will there be restrictions or additional mandates that impact the budget?

zoommeetingDue to the crisis, the Scarsdale School Board is holding meetings online.

In response to the Board’s inquiries, Mattey estimated potential savings this year if school is closed through the end of April and through the end of the school year. He estimated that if school is closed through April, the addition to the surplus would be $66,500 and if it is closed through the end of June, the surplus would grow by $693,000.

Public comments followed Mattey’s presentation, some in favor of the original budget, some in favor of the administration’s reduced proposal and other’s asking for more drastic cuts and no budget increase over the 19-20 budget.

Diane Greenwald thanked the Board and asked the community to make sacrifices for the children. She said, “Please, don’t make decisions based solely on the optics of this difficult, scary moment. Look carefully at what is happening all around us. People are sacrificing for the greater good - for the wellness and health of our most vulnerable. That is who we are. We are still Scarsdale, here because of our schools and we are a community dedicated to education and the healthy development of our children, growing into productive contributors to a global society.

We sacrifice and work hard to be here. We come here because we value investment into our children above all else. Young families and our elders alike are here because we value learning and education.

The lesson of the moment may seem like austerity, but let’s look deeper. The world is changing really fast and it’s hard to imagine what our kids are going to need to make a difference in the future. But that uncertainly make clear, we need to invest into our children more than ever.

I know that the auditorium improvements are likely to be deferred, but consider an alternative optic — in this time of aggressive disconnection, imagine the optics of a commitment to improving this gathering space as an audaciously hopeful act. The Library didn’t build a fixed seat auditorium in the improvement project because the community has access to the ones at SHS and the SMS, and its used by so many. Art is the place where possibility lives. Imagine the message sent to kids, that their imagination matters, their expressions make a difference.

We are going to need these kids to be compassionate leaders, doctors, writers, artists, politicians, teachers, researchers and change agents. We can sacrifice a lot for them.”

Speaking for the Board of the League of Women Voters of Scarsdale, Leah Dembitzer said, “The League Board notes that a Scarsdale education has long been a leader amongst its peers and we recommend that the District continue to aspire to educational leadership. It is imperative that Scarsdale sustain its position as a leader in public education.” About staffing she said, “The League Board recommends that the Administration and Board continue to reflect on and provide appropriate staffing to protect the academic well-being of the high school”…. and “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.”

The League called the renovation of the high school auditorium “one of the key goals of the budget,” and asked the district to look into bonding the project.

About the budget vote, the LWVS encouraged the district to work with NYS to adopt measures to ensure that votes have the time and opportunity to request and return mail-in ballots.

Others had concerns about the future. Mayra Kirkendall Rodriguez warned, “The American economy is at a standstill…. economists are predicting unprecedented unemployment levels. Westchester County could see a decline of 13% in its GDP in the second half of the year.”

She continued, “Scarsdale residents are not immune to deteriorating conditions. 50% earn less than $250,000 – of those the average is $146,000. These households are the most vulnerable to layoffs. All will have to make painful cuts to their household budgets. There are no optics here.”

Bob Harrison agreed with Rodriguez. He said that 56-57% of our community do not have children in the school system, saying “We have supported the district for many years and now it’s time to consider all of us in the community.” About the auditorium renovation he said, “I was at the Spelling Bee in January. It was a great community meeting. I was comfortable in my seat. I didn’t have any problems with the chair. I would like to go through the auditorium with Stuart to see the things that need to be done. It is not an emergency. There is no way our residents today should pay for an auditorium that will exist for the next 20 years. That should be bonded. This should not be done from current taxpayer revenues.”

Alissa Baum asked, “What would be the effect of these tax cuts on the tax cap next year?”

Bob Berg also sounded the alarm. He said, “The Fed predicted 30% unemployment. The Great Depression has come back. We have to face the facts. The reality is that many Scarsdale residents are going to lose their jobs, their savings. How are taxpayers going to pay their school taxes? We have no idea what the devastation is going to be. People will have to dig out and rebuild their lives. We have to cut into the muscle. We are living the worst case scenario right now. We have to cut the budget below this year’s level. I don’t know where these cuts are going to come from."

Molly Tu said, “Companies are cutting all discretionary spending. All hiring and promotions are being suspended. Employees are agreeing to cut their salaries so that companies don’t have to make layoffs. The reality is we need to make these tough decisions and cut into muscle.”

Former Board of Education member Art Rublin urged the Board to wait before making tough decisions. He said, “You don’t need to adopt a budget until April 20. That’s almost a month from now. This situation is changing every day – the market is up and down. Reserve decisions until you need to make them. It may turn out that school district elections will be put off. You can consider additional discussions. I do think we need to take into account the realities on the ground – but one of the realities is that a strong school district has been part of Scarsdale since the beginning. The school district is excellent because of the teachers. We could cut our nose to spite our face if the teachers feel disenchanted…..We are in an emergency situation. The fund balance looks healthy. You could consider use of fund balance to deal with the current situation.

Yingyong Chen said, “It’s great you are considering all of the discretionary spending that can be deferred into the future. Scarsdale has the lowest number of students per administrative staff – is that something that is set? The health insurance is a huge cost – have we looked into a joint effort with other districts to reduce the costs? Can there be more collaboration between the school district and the Village?”

Following public comment the Board discussed the proposed list of reductions.

As ceiling fans for the elementary school gyms were on the list of proposed cuts, Board Member Karen Ceske asked, “What is happening with the circulation of air at Greenacres Gym?” Mattey responded, “We have mechanical fresh air exchange in that space. We repaired that system. It is not that much different than our other gymnasiums.”

Scott Silberfein asked if the $7,000 for cyber security training could be maintained. He was assured by Jerry Crisci and Rachel Moseley that additional cyber security improvements remained in the budget.

The Board spoke at length about continuing to fund professional development initiatives such as funds for summer curriculum development, summer planning days and classes in the Skillful Teacher program. They agreed to revisit this decision at a later meeting.

The administration had recommended adding $250,000 to the health insurance line in light of the COVID-19 crisis. After some discussion the Board decided that the health care reserve fund could cover that if needed.

Alison Singer asked if some of the facilities improvements budgeted in the 19-20 budget could be deferred and funds used for next year. However, Mattey explained that all of those projects were in process and the funds had been allocated.

Referring to reductions, Chris Morin asked the administrators, Chris Morin asked for additional cuts saying, “I think we should look beyond the list …. what else are you considering?”
He continued, “I am not exactly sure where to look – I think the administration knows better than we do. He asked the administration to consider not replacing staff that is leaving and re-allocating responsibilities among existing staff. He said, “Some high school departments are better staffed than others?... My broad point is that we have to work harder to reduce the proposed budget. Head count growth is an area to look at.”

Board President Pam Fuehrer responded, “I don’t want to direct the administration to look for additional cuts without the Board’s directive. This would bring us to 1.61% on the levy less the $250,000 additional for the health reserves (a 1.45% increase)” Is the Board comfortable or do we want them to look for additional cuts.

Scott Silberfein said, “I think more work needs to be done. Obviously there are many other items that they did not put forward. We need to continue to have this discussion.”

Karen Ceske, Carl Finger and Ron Schulhof agreed. Ron said, “I think this is a useful exercise. It’s incumbent upon us to look at the next layer and do our due diligence.”

Dr. Hagerman pushed back saying, “We need some guidance on what to look at…. we added STEAM and reading teachers – do we want to undo these?” He added, “Teachers positions are off the table. Civil service positions ... responsibilities can’t be changed. The administration team, bus driver and aides are all that’s left. There are legalities around employee groups.

Chris Morin responded, “Any of the new positions are a good place to look. Can we take advantage of attrition? Not replacing every last person solves the problems for next year too. There are ways to approach this that do not have to be as difficult as we are pretending they are.”

Responding to the staffing question, Assistant Superintendent Drew Patrick said, “We already eliminated the .4 secretarial position. The other two positions are mandated to teach children in the special education classes.”

Carl Finger said, “While I think Chris’ point is well taken, because of the situation we are in where we are doing a budget for next year, if we want to look at something more significant that would impact programs, I would be more comfortable if we did that over the long term with a longer term perspective.”

As the budget session came to a close, Board President Pam Fuehrer said, “I think we are spinning our wheels here.”

Dr. Hagerman and his cabinet made it clear that in their view, additional cuts would jeopardize the educational program, the faculty, the physical plant and the fiscal health of the district. At the same time, Board members sought to assure the community they had made their best effort to explore all avenues to minimize district expenses and taxes.

The balancing act will continue at the Board’s next study session on March 30, via Zoom. The Board has until April 20 to approve the budget so all items are up for discussion until that time.

SHSTrackOn Sunday night March 8 the Scarsdale Union Free School District announced that it would close until March 18 after a teacher at Scarsdale Middle School tested positive for coronavirus. Since then, 36 faculty, students, and parents have been asked to quarantine for fourteen days. The district is currently in the process of disinfecting all school buildings and buses. High school students are mostly not unhappy.

On their website, the district has advised against “larger gatherings of students or students and adults.” Even so, students have reported seeing “fun gatherings at Kenisco Dam” on social media, as well as parties hosted by their classmates. “I want to go to a [subject omitted] class party, but my parents won’t let me out of the house,” one junior lamented.

A senior had more reservations. “I’m very surprised that a lot of people are not taking this seriously whatsoever. I get that just one teacher had it, but going to the beach? Really?” She also mentioned seeing many videos about coronavirus posted by her classmates on the popular social media app Tik Tok. “I’m not going to go to a big gathering, but I want to go out later to Michaels [the arts and crafts store].”

“Fifty percent of people say everyone is going to be affected, fifty percent say it’s just a flu – I don’t know how imminent the threat is,” another senior said. “Even if they disinfect the schools, what if we go back and there’s one person who has it, and everyone gets affected? I’m scared.” She expressed concern over transmitting the virus: “It feels like you have too much control over other people’s lives to just go out.”

High school teachers will be permitted to assign work to their students starting on Monday, March 16th. It remains to be seen how this interruption will affect teachers' curricular plans. Many have already posted announcements on social media postponing or delaying certain projects and assignments. One student said his teacher initially assigned homework online, but then withdrew the assignment when the school requested it to be removed.

Other students are relishing their time spent at home. “I am taking this time to relax at home, update myself on the current epidemic, catch up on my favorite shows, and do some gaming,” a senior explained. “I am planning on staying home, as I think it is necessary for us all to give up a little bit of our time going out in order to keep our community healthy.”

It is unclear if spring break will be cancelled so that the district may fulfill the required minimum of school days mandated by New York State. “We will notify the community as soon as possible if the use of such days is necessary,” the district website states. To many high school seniors who have meticulously planned their spring break trips with friends, this could be nothing short of a disaster. One student maintained that “technically, [the district] can’t take away break days because it’s a state of emergency.”

A senior said that since his spring break plans were inevitably going to be scrapped, he would hang out with friends during the extended closure. “I’m going out often,” he said confidently. “Corona is so overblown, and young people with healthy immune systems easily survive it.”

“I love the days off,” he said. “It’s probably a little excessive, but who cares.”

The 2020-21 Scarsdale School Budget discussions appeared to be moving on an even keel until the COVID-19 crisis hit, the economy tanked and board members felt the responsibility to reconsider some of their assumptions.

At the Scarsdale Board of Education’s first virtual meeting on Zoom, Assistant Superintendent Stuart Mattey gave an update on the latest budget projections and presented options for financing a $1.95 million update to the Scarsdale High School auditorium.

Here are the numbers he presented:

20 21proposedbudget

These budget numbers included financing the auditorium with $1.2 million from the 2020-21 budget and a $736,431 budget transfer. Work to the auditorium was approved by voters as part of the 2014 bond. But when other projects came in higher than expected, the auditorium renovation was put aside.

Mattey explained the drivers behind the $5.5 million increase in the budget, including a $3,071,210 increase in salaries -which includes the addition of 2.4 full time employees. Retirement contributions are up $712,706, other benefits are up $524,298, the plant improvement budget is up $390,000, $1.21 mm is included for the auditorium and health insurance is project to rise by $257,246.

The dated but often used auditorium now requires new seating, rigging, lights, sound, electrical, and new stage flooring. Both the seating and the carpeting have become safety issues and the equipment needs to be updated to provide a good experience for students in music and theater and to enhance performances. Though the high school has done much for athletes including a state-of-the-art fitness center, a new turf field and track, little has been done for students in the performing arts, who view the update as an equity issue.

Assistant Superintendent Edgar McIntosh worked with students and parents to define priorities for the renovation and they identified:

Aesthetics
Design/function
Safety and hygiene
Comfort
Technology

Students also asked the district to consider improvements to the band room, the little theater, the music tower and arts programming. The theater storage area, while adequate in space, needs to be painted, cleaned and would benefit from new shelving.

The budget does not include funds for water mitigation and HVAC which will be further researched.

Mattey presented four options for financing the auditorium. The first is the option included in the current 2020-21 budget projection. He explained that with this option the work would take place over two summers, likely to begin in the summer of 2021.

Option 2 would split the funding for the project over two budget years with $1,215 million in the 2020-21 budget and $735,000 in the 2021-22 budget. The sequencing of the work would be the same but the funding would be contingent on approval of the project in two budget years and could possibly push the work out to the summer of 2023.

Option 3 is to issue a $1,950,000 10-year bond that would be voted on by the community in the fall of 2020. The debt service would be $135,000 per year. The 2020-21 budget would decrease by 1.24% and the tax levy would decrease by .83%. This would push the work out an additional summer.

Option 4 is to propose perhaps a larger $15 million bond to include the auditorium work along with other district projects, possibly the high school Learning Resource Center, high school visual arts room 215 visual arts, Heathcote office renovations, vestibules at the middles school, Edgewood and Fox Meadow classroom renovations. This would decrease this year’s budget but add $805,000 in debt expense to the annual budget for 15 years.

In the discussion that followed, Board members expressed reservations about the proposed 3.43 percent budget to budget increase, which is the largest increase in 10 years.

Chris Morin said, “I think we have a lot of work to do to submit a budget that makes sense…. We are looking at the biggest tax increase in 10 years… We have had a long period of investment. We are going to have to take a pause. The auditorium (project) would be very conspicuous… It is not obvious that the administration needs another big project…. It’s going to take a lot to get this budget down to something that’s going to work.”

Scott Silberfein said, “Before this week I was in favor of bonding this project. But given the current environment I would nix the auditorium from the 2020-21 budget and come back to it in 2021-22. As we sit with a budget that’s going up $5 million I am not sure how we include a $2 million net impact for the auditorium – and that’s not even including water intrusion.”

Alison Singer said, “I have to agree with Scott. Things have changed so dramatically. We are living in a time of great uncertainty. This is not an emergency expenditure… it is difficult to move forward at this point. I will be interested to hear public comments from the community.”

Carl Finger agreed, saying “I would like to hear a little bit from the public as there was so much support for the project before. It is troublesome right now.”

Karen Ceske said, “I also have concerns and would be interested to hear from the public.”

Ron Schulhof said, “I agree with the sentiment. We have a lot of uncertainty with the world and our budget. There may be a potential federal stimulus. I would like to see how the world plays out in the next two weeks.”

Summarizing the discussion, Board President Pam Fuehrer said, “We are all paying attention to our fiscal responsibility … I am holding out for the possibility of a bond. It brings this to the voters.” She encouraged the public to send emails or comment at a meeting.

Concluding this portion of the meeting, the Board asked the administration to look for possible reductions beyond the auditorium in the 2020-21 budget and to bring them to the Board for the March 23 or March 31 meeting.

In the public comments portion of the meeting former Board of Education member Art Rublin thanked the Board for facilitiating this meeting and public comments and said he understood why the auditorium "would be a tough sell in this environment." He cautioned against other big cuts, saying that cutting out the $1.9 million for the auditorium wouldl be enough. He said, “don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.... focus on keeping the Scarsdale School District strong."

Scarsdale PTA President Deb Morel said the following:

"The SHS PTA stands by its previous statement of support for all of the High School administration’s requests. At the same time, we recognize that we are in a period of great personal and societal uncertainty. And it is difficult to consider investing more into our schools when we don’t know what the future will bring for our families and our community. In light of this, we understand that some requests, while both worthwhile and needed, may be more appropriate for the 2021-22 budget. We strongly urge the Board to seriously consider the HS’s staffing requests of 1 full-time special education teacher and 1 freshman team composed of a ful-time dean, an English teacher, and a social studies teacher for the 2021-22 budget. We further urge the Board to consider the repair and renovation of art room 215 and the addition of a quiet room to the library for inclusion in the following year’s budget.

The auditorium renovation project, on the other hand, is unique in both its scope and the needs it addresses. This is a space that is used throughout the school year-- both during the school day and evenings-- for myriad student, district and community events, including chorus, orchestra and band concerts, student musicals, plays, tournaments and assemblies, PTA, Scarsdale Family Counseling and other parent-related meetings and presentations, the District’s annual Faculty Convocation, and many community organization events, the Friends of the Scarsdale Library Spelling Bee as a recent example. As set forth in the “High School Auditorium - History” and “High School Auditorium - Rationale” slides of Mr. Mattey’s presentation, the growing need for the auditorium renovation project has been evident for decades, and the community support for it has been clear since at least the 2014 bond vote. Although a few parts of the project have been completed, the lion’s share have not and have been deferred repeatedly from budget year to budget year despite the 2014 bond’s community directive. We disagree that any part of the proposed auditorium project is a “wish-list” or “wouldn’t-it-be-nice” item; rather, every element in the proposed scope of work serves demonstrable educational and safety purposes for our students and our community that are long overdue. Putting this project off even one more year will not serve the taxpayers in any meaningful way, and, in fact, may cost them more in deferred maintenance. Delaying the project may also put undue pressure on future budgets by artificially lowering the tax cap for next year and beyond, without meeting the District’s current and future needs. But more importantly, if you cut this project in any meaningful way yet again, you will send a clear message to all the music, vocal, theater arts and theater technology and design students that they and their academic and extra-curricular interests and passions are the least valued in our schools because their resources are consistently considered the most expendable. The Executive Committee applauds and strongly supports the portion of the currently proposed capital projects budget to repair and renovate the High School auditorium. We whole-heartedly urge the Board to include this project in its final budget.

However Robert Berg saw it differently. He said, “Before this crisis I was in favor of the proposed budget but would have bonded the auditorium. Now an unimaginable shock has stopped the world. Peoples’ savings have been decimated. Folks may not be able to pay their school taxes. We can’t afford a 3.3% budget increase or anything near that. We need to face reality. It’s a shame. I support the efforts of this board but this is reality.”

coronavirus graphic web feature(This is the opinion of site founder Joanne Wallenstein) We’re living in unprecedented times. Each day the news appears more like a doomsday script for a movie I would be too frightened to watch. On the national level, our President is unhinged, he’s dismissed and ignored the experts and mocked science saying anything that doesn’t fit into his playbook is “fake news.”

Up to a month ago, policy on the national level was disheartening, hurt our sensibilities and our pocketbooks but did not threaten our very survival. Now with the outbreak of the highly communicable and possibly fatal COVID-19 or Coronavirus, failures at the national level could have dire consequences on the local level.

We’ve already seen the President contradict the scientists and deny the severity of the threat. We’ve read news reports from those who feared they had the Coronavirus but were unable to get tested as they didn’t meet CDC guidelines – only to later learn that they were infected. Anyone who can read has good reason to be skeptical about the way that our national leaders are handling the outbreak.

So now more than ever, it’s important that we think smart on a local level and call on our Scarsdale leadership and resident experts to safeguard our community. We have a Mayor, Village Manager, Village Board, School Superintendent and School Board who can all make critical decisions in these unusual times.

One of the goals of our school curriculum is to teach critical thinking skills, and now’s the time for these local leaders and our uniquely-qualified residents to analyze the situation, formulate plans and implement them if needed.

Last week Scarsdale faced its first challenge in the crisis when families returned home from the February break. It quickly became known that several families travelled to Milan and skied in Northern Italy where there has been an outbreak of the virus. Another family travelled to South Korea, an area hit hard by the virus.

The CDC recommended that those who spent time in either country in the past 14 days take precautions. Many companies who have employees who travelled to affected regions are requiring them to self quarantine for 14 days before returning to work, even if they are showing no symptoms of the disease, which can take weeks to manifest.

However, our school district has not required students who travelled to Italy or Korea to abstain from attending school. Naturally, parents with children in the classrooms with these returning travelers are concerned. Though the travelers might feel fine now, they may have been exposed and could potentially become ill during the next few weeks and infect others. It is unknown if the disease can be spread before people become symptomatic, but it appears that it might.

Parents questioned the school district and requested that the families who travelled should be encouraged to self-quarantine for the recommended two-week period. Even if it turns out that no one was exposed or infected, this would safeguard the rest of the children -- and the community at large.

The school responded by saying, “School attendance is compulsory under the law,” and said they had no right to “question or monitor where District families travel,” and “do not have the right to impose additional quarantines above the procedures set out by the government.”

Furthermore, “The District has a responsibility to work with the County Department of Health for students exhibiting symptoms and have traveled to China under Education Law 906.1 (This law is explained well in the State Guidance I have linked in the District-wide emails). District nurses have been instructed to seek guidance from the county in any situation when a symptomatic child has traveled to an affected region as the law currently only covers China.”

The school did not change their response when more countries were added to the list. This weekend several airlines suspended flights to Northern Italy, recognizing the difficulty of containing communication of the virus.

According to the district policy, the school nurse is bound to wait for a child to exhibit symptoms before making any recommendations regarding attendance. But as other parents have pointed out, once the child develops symptoms, it’s simply too late to protect others in the school.

The district did agree to reach out to families if they were made aware of travel to affected countries, saying “In instances where the District has information about student or family travel to an affected region, we are reaching out to those families to support them and make sure they are aware of the CDC recommendations.”

This offered little solace to parents who had no way of knowing whether the affected children would be present at school.

We spoke with one very worried mother who contacted Superintendent Thomas Hagerman, Director of Special Education and Student Services Eric Rauschenbach, her school principal and the class teacher to ask if the children who travelled could stay home for two weeks, as recommended by the CDC. All gave her the same response: “There’s nothing we can do.”

Another parent told us that one of the families offered to quarantine themselves for two weeks and were told, “You and your family have done nothing wrong and deserve to return to your normal routine without this type of interruption.”

Where does this leave the balance of the community? What about the rights of others to attend school, free from fear? It seems the only choice for those who are worried is to pull their own children out of school.

This problem is an easy one to solve. Administrators could actively encourage these families to keep their children home rather than run the risk of infecting their classmates. Since there are only a handful of families involved, only a few would be inconvenienced to spare many from potentially catastrophic results.

In this case, instead of doing some out of the box thinking, district administrators appear to have contacted their lawyers and come up with a policy that could work for another type of virus, but not for this one.

As my 84 year-old aunt said, “I have never lived through a pandemic,” and neither have any of us. In order to minimize the risk to everyone in the community, let’s ask our leaders to be flexible and creative and use their critical thinking skills to balance the rights of a few vs. the needs of the community.

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