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Economic Crisis Leads School Board to Reconsider Proposed 2020-21 School Budget

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:

Safety and hygiene

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.”

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