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School Administration Defends District Staffing and Budget, Saying "It is Built on Excellence not Excess"

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.


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:

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