The one consensus among Babylon Village taxpayers, parents, teachers, administrators and the board of education is that budget cuts needed to meet the state mandated tax levy cap should not impact the educational experience for students.
But just how to do that, in light of a necessary $694,182 reduction in this year’s budget, is far from any sort of consensus and brought forth a range of ideas and feedback Wednesday night during the BOE budget forum at the high school auditorium. Board members Dominick Montalto and Thomas Melito were not in attendance.
“The purpose of this forum is to share our feelings, concerns on the budget and the cuts. No decisions have been made,” stressed Interim Superintendent Peter Daly in opening the meeting.
“We’re in the development stage and the budget is a living breathing document and changes can be made at any time. We will deliver a budget that meets the instructional needs for students and provides resources for the staff,” he added.
As Patch reported in the past month, the school district is intent on meeting the tax levy cap this year. At the last budget workshop Daly presented a list of potential reductions presented to BOE members for consideration.
That list include cutting kindergarten to a half-day program or eliminating it as it’s not a state mandated program, reductions in art and music to junior high school sports, electives and revamping the transportation program. The latter would require a separate ballot proposition at the budget vote in May.
The list also includes cutting field trips, clubs, conferences and after-school activities as well as staff reductions from the administration level to the office support level.
Teacher cuts and administrative costs were the prime topics of feedback during the two and half hour meeting.
Several speakers focused on the current contract negotiation with the teacher’s collective bargaining unit, and stressed that the board push for salary reductions and ask that teachers pay more of their healthcare benefits.
The teacher’s contract expires in June. If a new contract agreement is not reached teachers will work under the current contract in accordance with the state Triborough law requirements.
In his opening statement BOE President Dominic P. Bencivenga provided phone numbers of the governor’s office and state legislators and suggested that forum attendees make calls to express their concerns about the cuts necessary to meet the tax levy cap.
“Everyone on this board has skin in this game, we have kids in the district or kids who graduated. No one wants to make the cuts,” he said. “We will make the best decisions that we can and we want to hear from the public here and at the next forum.” The budget will be presented again for discussion at the BOE work study meeting on February 27 in the high school library beginning at 7 p.m.
Several speakers noted that the recession has hit many Babylon families hard, and relayed they had lost jobs and many were still searching for work after a few years. They implored the BOE to be diligent on spending and to focus on eliminating the unnecessary and consolidating where possible.
One woman noted that her family’s income had been cut by 50 percent by a job loss
“We’re still here and alive. Since we’re looking at a much less percentage cut in the district I can’t figure out why this is so hard,” she said. “We figured out how to make our lives work on a new budget.”
Another parent noted that the cuts are not a one-time event given even larger reductions will be needed in the next few years to meet the cap.
“The major fear I have here is the sustainability moving forward. We’re not going to get more aid and this tax cap is not going away.”
Board members agreed with her contention.
“We have given thought to what this means in the next few years and it’s not a pleasant thought,” said Bencivenga.
“We’ll be here again next year doing the same thing,” said Board of Education Vice President Roger A. Katz.
Several speakers said teachers’ compensation should not be the focus of cuts, and that administrative-level cuts are necessary.
One parent suggested consolidating district services with neighboring districts but as Katz noted it would be likely that the district wouldn’t be the one acquiring but rather would be acquired.
“The consolidation potential has come up. I thing we would be swallowed up though, and lose our voice in how our students are educated,” said Katz.
The biggest budget cost is salary and compensation as it accounts for 87 percent of the budget. Special education mandated programs account for 13 percent.
Several speakers asked the BOE to provide specific savings related to potential cuts and also requested that the administrative aspect of the district be audited. Several noted that support staff services might be able to be consolidated or eliminated given overlap.
Many of those addressing the BOE also noted that the board and administrators have a tough job.
“I don’t envy your position at this point,” said one parent, who said it might be time to “think out of the box” and explore potential new revenue streams such as renting out district space and renegotiating current vendor contracts to gain better return on investments.
One of the most passionate, and eloquent, requests came from a Babylon alumnus who had a thriving career as an architect until he was laid off three years ago. He has yet to find a new job.
“I applaud your efforts as it’s a hard job and your cool headedness is admirable,” he told the BOE.
“I went to school here and went to college because of this district. My proudest accomplishment as an architect was building a school in Nicaragua made of wood trusses and mud,” he told the BOE.
“That school offers those children the opportunity change the future. If we skimp on our education we condemn our kids to a bleak future. Before I would cut any programs or teachers I ask you to look at administration costs. The world is a lot more complex and students have to be prepared,” he said.