SHRUB OAK, N.Y. - As the tax cap tightens, salaries and benefits rise, and unfunded mandates continue to pour in, school districts such as Lakeland are searching for creative ways to keep budget increases nominal while adding what they deem to be critical 21st century services, including a larger allocation of funds for mental health services.
MaryEllen Herzog, assistant superintendent for pupil personnel services, said there is a growing need for these services at Lakeland Central School District. Sharing data from 2015-16 and 2016-17 to date, Herzog said there have been 3,115 absences at the middle and high school level due to emotional distress (729 at Lakeland Copper Beech Middle School, 1,165 at Lakeland High School and 1,221 at Walter Panas High School).
“Our goal is to establish some kind of a safe haven, a common room,” Herzog said. “As we see those challenges start to come forward, [we want] to try to nip it in the bud.”
Superintendent Dr. George Stone said creating a staffed “safe zone” in the middle school and high schools is important, especially given the number of students who are missing school for these mental health ailments.
“We have so many new programs, but we really want to try and allocate some space in each of these schools for some of these services that are unique and exceptional, like students with ‘school phobia,’” Stone said. “If we can get them to a safe zone in our schools and hopefully in that way transition them back to the school, that would be a big plus.”
These “safe zones,” Herzog said, would also be for students recovering from concussions.
“For students who are recovering from concussions and have that need for cognitive rest before they can return, there is a place where there will be staff and where there will be work and where there will be guidance for them,” she said. “That’s our effort right now.”
Herzog said these spaces would not be for purposes of ongoing therapy, but rather a short-term treatment and referral service.
School board president Carol Ann Dobson seemed supportive of the idea.
“The whole idea behind this is if it’s in the school and they can do it not missing a class, that the child will get the services they need on a regular basis and not miss class,” she said.
School board trustee Michael Daly said these services sound important, but asked the million dollar question: “How do we pay for that in the budget?”
“We’re working on figuring that out,” Herzog said.
Right now, Herzog said, she has teams of guidance counselors and social workers who are visiting neighboring school districts “to see what they’re doing, how they structured it and how they’re funding it. Most importantly is how it’s being staffed.” Included in the 2017-18 budget is the addition of a social worker at Copper Beech Middle School. Herzog said the program would be equally preventative and responsive.
“We want to do it cautiously and carefully and we’re going to build it obviously with the intention of it being successful,” Herzog said.
In other 2017-18 budget projections, Stone said he anticipates Lakeland will remain under the tax cap once again while keeping expenditures flat.
“We think we can live on the same means that we have,” Stone said. “We will keep our tax levy under the mandated cap.”
An added difficulty in budgeting this year is the lack of state aid being projected for education. Binoy Alunkal, business manager, said he expects about a 2 percent increase in state aid from last year.
Also affecting the budget are steep increases in fuel and utility costs (the cost of a barrel of oil nearly doubled from last year, Alunkal said); increasing health insurance premiums; and the minimum wage increase. Beginning Dec. 31, 2016, Westchester County will see annual $1 increases until the minimum wage reaches $15 on Dec. 31, 2021.
“We will certainly be factoring that into our budget every year,” he said.
Stone said the district’s overall budgeting goals remain the same: maintaining its recommended class sizes, maintaining strong reserves and keeping expenditures flat without cutting programs.
The Board of Education will review each aspect of the budget in the coming months. Its next work session is 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 2, at the Administration Building.
The budget vote will take place 7 a.m.–9 p.m. Tuesday, May 16, at Van Cortlandtville Elementary School.