North Salem Parents to school board: ‘Do whatever it takes’ to save small class sizes

School Board Trustee Deborah D'Agostino listens to parents' concerns at last Wednesday's meeting.
Neil Hoffman asks the board when a new teacher might be hired.
Richard Miller questions the North Salem Board of Education about class sizes and budget items.
Parent Michelle Collins asks about proposed cameras on school buses.
Pequenakonck Elementary School class section projections for the 2016-17 school year.

Parents called on the North Salem Board of Education to “do whatever it takes” to keep class sizes small at the budget meeting held on Wednesday, March 16. As in previous meetings, district parents again pressured the Board of Education to look for ways to keep class sizes small.

Richard Miller, a parent in the district, said “I went back to a lot of previous budgets and what I’ve noticed is not a lot of the money we’re allocating doesn’t actually make it back to the kids.”

“We have fewer kids in the school now, and fewer teachers, but the tax levy has gone up about 12 percent since ‘09, but the (teacher’s) bene­fits have increased 37 percent. It’s unsustainable. If we were a business, we’d be on the fast track to insolvency. ” Miller said. “It’s a problem that has to get ­ fixed. A lot of people come here for the school system. Once you start having larger class sizes, the kind of boutique nature of what’s here; the private-like education, smaller class sizes, all of that, goes away.”

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Board of Education President Andrew Brown responded, “I’ve been doing this for seven years. What’s struck me is the remarkably small piece of the budget the board can actually affect. Everything else is either mandated by contract. We have no power or choice in it”

“In normal corporate America,” Miller added, “Pensions don’t exist any more. That’s why it needs to change.”

 The school district had presentations on the proposed special education budget by Adam VanDerStuyf, the director of special education and pupil personnel services, a recap of the overall North Salem school budget by Superintendent Dr. Kenneth Freeston, and budgets for buildings, grounds and transportation and technology by Facilities Manager Gary Green.

In his recap, Freeston told those present what would happen if the proposed 2016-2017 spending plan went down to defeat, and what the consequences of a ‘no’ vote would be. He explained the district would have the option of putting the same budget up again for a second time to the voters, or put a revised budget before them. If the budget fails a second time, it would go to a contingency budget, imposed by the state. The contingency budget, or so-called austerity budget, has numerous restrictions. It cannot be more than the proposed budget and the tax levy cannot be greater than the prior year’s actual tax levy. In addition, a contingency budget would not permit spending on new equipment such as school buses or public use of buildings, except when there is no cost to the district, or any capital expenditures, except in an emergency.

He also reiterated that the bulk of the school’s budget comes from teachers’ salaries and benefits --78.21 percent-totaling $580,412, which includes health insurance, FICA and pension costs.

Freeston reminded residents that this year’s school budget vote will nclude a transportation purchase proposition. Proposition 2 would allow the school district to ­ float a bond totaling $744,403 to purchase ‑ five full-size buses, one 20-passenger bus, a wheelchair-accessible bus, a Suburban as well as cameras for all buses.

VanDerStuyf, in his presentation on special education and pupil personnel services, unveiled a proposed budget for 2016-2017 of $5,384,160, a 7.27 percent increase over the last – school year. In his slide presentation, he detailed the disability classifications of school age students in the district.

He noted that the number of students with autism increased between 2010-2015 from 11 to 19 and speech impaired students decreased over the same time period from 23 to 13. He credited improved services for and understanding of autism with a decrease in the impaired speech category of students.

VanDerStuyf detailed plans in his proposed 2016-2017 budget to create a 6:1:1 special education class that the district could make available to disabled students from outside districts. He was optimistic that such a program would not only serve to bring additional revenue to the school district in the form of tuition, but also “cohorts” for existing students in the program to help them transition and to enrich their social/learning experience.

Also at the meeting, Green unveiled his proposed operations and maintenance budget for the next ‑ school year. Planned upgrades include new security modifications at Pequenakonck Elementary School (PQ), as well as a new conference room, AP office and reading rooms, and new carpeting at the middle school. quads as well as new ­flooring and book shelf configurations in the library. “Critical projects” will include the replacement of high school classroom doors, the installation of a new septic system at PQ, and an ADA-compliant walkway to Tompkin’s Field, all of which have been bonded for, but will have their work done by existing facilities staff . His proposed budget includes a 7.08 percent increase in spending due to the need for additional custodial substitutes, as existing custodial personnel are used for the projects.

Said Green, “By using existing personnel, we save a significant amount of money, as opposed to prevailing wage.”

The presentations were followed once again by a period of public comment from the community.

Neil Hoffman, the parent of a second grader, took the podium and questioned the Board of Ed, to see if his child will face larger class sizes in the upcoming school year.

He asked, “Where do we currently stand now, based on your demographics projections? The board said that if the class size goes from 68 to 70, it will add an additional teacher.”

“I’m in favor of waiting until we have a sure number,” Brown said, “There’s no question that we will hire a teacher if we get to those parameters.”

Hoffman responded, “Let’s pretend that two students do not come in to the district. Is there any room for exception to quantify the hiring of another teacher to keep classes at an intimate level, because some kids in the kids in the class right now need special attention. Need the tutoring?”

Brown explained, “Whatever student needs that, will get it.”

The North Salem Board of Education’s next meeting is slated for April 6. During the so-called “scorecard” meeting, the board will hash out details of the proposed spending plan. On April 19 the school board members will vote on the budget that will be presented to the public.

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