Education

Somers Parents Plead With School Officials to Keep Dr. Hardy

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SOMERS, N.Y. - Separately, but in quest of a common goal, some Somers parents are quietly calling on scores of other moms and dads to help save the job of their school system’s popular director of guidance.

Dr. Deborah Hardy and her $160,000-a-year position appear “almost certain” to become high-profile casualties of a million-dollar budgetary belt-tightening. The economies, dictated by next year’s unusually tight state restrictions on spending, could cost the Somers Central School District as many as a dozen jobs, administration officials warned last month.

But the prospect of losing Hardy’s job, so intimately entwined in the college futures of graduating seniors, sparked pleas for the district to reconsider its decision. Parents recommended finding more palatable, alternative cutbacks or even presenting a budget that defied the state’s cap on spending.    

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Hope Mazzola told members of her “Somers Moms” Facebook site that the guidance director’s job “is not a position that we can or should have to live without.” She urged them to converge on Tuesday’s school board meeting “and support the cause.”

“We’re not coming out only in support of her,” Mazzola said in an interview. “We’re coming out in support of the position.”

Mazzola and other parents who spoke with The Somers Record have at least one child still in the Somers school system and another on a college campus. They expressed dismay at Hardy’s departure.

“It will be a great loss and a disservice to our kids,” said one mother, who asked not to be identified. She has quietly organized an email campaign urging like-minded parents to share with school authorities their misgivings.

“I don’t know what Dr. [Raymond] Blanch [the superintendent of schools] or the powers that be are thinking,” she said. “Maybe they just don’t value this role.” 

Neither Blanch nor Hardy responded immediately to requests for comment on the controversy, which began brewing over the Christmas break as word of Hardy’s departure leaked out. It picked up momentum via private email exchanges and burst into quasi-public view this week with Mazzola’s posting to her Facebook circle.

“Somers Moms,” Mazzola said, has more than 1,200 members “who in turn shared with all of their friends on FB and email.”

Both school officials and parent-activists sought to tamp down emotions in advance of Tuesday’s school board meeting at the middle school. While Mazzola is eager to press home her group’s point, she emphasized, “We’re hoping to do it with an organized, factual discussion presented through proper channels instead of just stomping our feet.”

Board President Sarena Meyer, blaming “yet another unprecedented budget challenge,” for the loss of Hardy’s position, said that “like any of the quality faculty and staff positions we are forced to cut, it isn’t personal.”

“None of the personnel decisions are ever made easily or without intense and comprehensive understanding of actual operations,” she said. “These very hard decisions are always based on reducing a position, not a specific person.”

Meyer said she expects the board “will be forced to cut 8 to 12 FTEs [full-time equivalent staff positions] in order to meet our fiscal obligations.”

School district officials, facing a tax-cap-triggered budget gap of more than $1 million, warned last month of the job eliminations. Some would be lost to declining enrollment, the district said in a budget presentation, but others would be cut simply by an inability to balance expenditures with necessary revenue, mostly derived from property taxes. Here’s why:

The state’s tax-cap law was enacted in 2011, touted as a remedy for runaway property taxes. It limits increases in a local jurisdiction’s levy on property — the source of more than 85 percent of Somers’ $86 million-plus spending — to 2 percent or the rise in the Consumer Price Index, whichever is less.

That CPI figure, expected tomorrow (Jan. 15), will likely display the tiniest annual hike in inflation in the four-year history of the tax cap. While CPI had clocked at about 1.5 percent to more than 3 percent in the years before and after the cap’s enactment, its 12-month rise as of last November was almost zero, 0.12 percent.

For discussion’s sake (and, many fear, the likely reality), that means no increase in Somers CSD’s primary source of funding.

Most school budgets reflect neither the CPI’s market basket-type purchases nor purely local spending decisions. Instead, they are an amalgam of some local educational choices, but also state and federal mandated spending as well as contractual obligations. Such budgets would likely increase by more than 2 percent just to roll over the same academic programs and other services from one year to the next.

Subtracting total income (the anticipated levy with its cap-permitted increase) from the total money needed to fund rollover services provides the dollar gap — in the current case more than $1 million — that district budget-makers must confront.

Mazzola, fond of sports metaphors, likens the loss of a first-rate guidance counselor after 13 years of schooling to “dropping the ball on the 10-yard line.” But school officials, grappling with that cap-created shortfall, would likely counter that they were down three or four scores even before kicking off this year’s budget process.

To become cap-compliant in Somers, budget planners concluded that the director of counseling’s salary, scheduled to be more than $160,000 next year, plus benefits, would be among those $1 million in cuts.

“We recently informed the director of guidance that it is almost certain that we will be forced to eliminate the position due to the low CPI/tax levy cap calculation,” said Kenneth Crowley, the assistant superintendent for business.   

But parents like Mazzola focus not on finance, but on Hardy’s accomplishments as well as their children’s higher education. “The list of [her] responsibilities is too long to put here,” Mazzola said in her Facebook post, “but [Hardy] is doing all of them plus more and knows more about the college admissions process and everything that goes on relative to our kids than anyone.”

In the interview, she added, “It’s not a job that can be divided up between five administrators and have any cohesive sticking power.”

Dubbing Hardy “the 12-month employee,” Mazzola said, “You call her in the middle of the summer with something wrong with your kid, you get it taken care of. That doesn’t exist anywhere else.”

Another mother, who requested anonymity, agreed. She credited the veteran administrator with invigorating a lackluster counseling program after arriving here in 2009, saying, “She whipped an ineffective and inefficient guidance department into shape, and amazingly, she did it without making enemies.”

Mindful of the tax-cap’s financial constraints, she added, “I get that there need to be budget cuts, but I definitely question this decision.”

For her part, Mazzola also insists that budget fat can be found. “There are definitely places in our budget where we could pull money from, and really have it be more invisible and achieve the same goal, but retain a really important part of our guidance department.”

Asked whether she would support a budget that exceeded the tax cap, Mazzola declared her willingness to do so and believed “most people who have kids in the school would be willing to pay.” 

As the district’s director of counseling, Hardy oversees guidance professionals working with students at every grade level, though the bulk of their efforts go into the high school.

She came to Somers in July 2009 after six years as the Irvington School District’s counseling coordinator and, earlier, 11 years as a counselor at Sleepy Hollow High School. In addition to her Somers position, Hardy owns a web-based service providing professional development tools and applications for school counselors and serves as a consultant to other school districts on their counseling programs.

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