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School Board and Cabinet Debate Proposed Budget Reductions in Response to Economic Woes

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.

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