Briarcliff Manor school administrators are looking at dozens of layoffs—most of them directly impacting classrooms—to bridge a looming $4.6 million budget gap.
Among the economies being considered are as many as 51 jobs, including two dozen teachers as well as all of the teacher assistants hired less than year ago. The potential cuts, prompted by strict state limits on tax-levy increases and spelled out publicly for the first time Monday, could also mean larger class sizes and fewer opportunities in such things as art, music, language and athletics.
More than 60 parents, teachers and other district residents, joined for a time by school board members, spread out in the Middle School Theater Monday evening for a PowerPoint presentation of potential budget cuts.
"I’m not recommending any of these reductions," School Superintendent Neal S. Miller said. "They’re only [options] to be considered."
The audience, in turn, delivered a polite earful of its own to school officials, sending more than a dozen members to the microphone to defend or deride increasingly higher outlays for education and to question some of the tentative cuts, especially the teacher assistants.
After almost four hours of nonstop budget discussion, the only thing certain was further discussion. A community café, scheduled for Wednesday at 7 p.m. in the Todd Elementary School multipurpose room will be followed by at least a half-dozen more meetings before residents vote on a spending plan May 21.
Budget-makers face challenges. Simply to maintain today’s level of spending—a budget of $47.8 million—without cuts would require an outlay for next year of $50.9 million, officials say. That would shove past Albany’s cap on increases in the tax-levy, this year calculated at 3.3 percent above last year’s. Thanks to increases in things like state-mandated expenses, even spending a similar amount of dollars as this year would require more than $3 million in cuts and would still violate the cap. Only a budget smaller than this year’s—$46.3 million and representing some $4.5 million in economies—would be cap-compliant.
Accordingly, school, officials have prepared those two budgets, designed to get the conversation going on possible economies.
School board President Sal Magietta, who had urged a strong public turnout for Monday’s meeting, promised that in the budget process the board would be a champion of not only district taxpapers but also students and teachers, giving them a voice. He called the current spending document a "draft budget."
"Remember," cautioned Miller, the superintendent, "these [cuts] are the things the board and community will be considering." They were meant, he said, "for discussion purposes only at this point."
Well, that worked. Audience members wore a path to the microphone, most of them to discuss specific cuts under consideration. At the start, however, two speakers took broadly philosophical—and sharply opposed—views of spending on education.
Larry Beckler called "paying high property taxes...part of the price" of living in a top school district. "It is my understanding that high property taxes have always been part of the lifestyle choice to raise a family in Westchester. Those taxes in large part contribute to the standard of excellence we expect from our schools." Moreover, he said, a district like this one represents a good deal. "With private schools in and around Westchester charging well over 40 grand annually per child...being part of a high-performing public school district is a real bargain for families in this part of the country."
But taking what he called "a contrarian position," Victor Sternberg argued, "There are districts all around us that not only perform well, but—because they are affluent communities—they actually perform well while spending less money." The most prudent thing to do, he suggested, would be to look at those other districts and mimic them.
"Spending more money," Sternberg said, "does not equal a better education." He blamed teachers unions and their "wonderful opportunity to control the state Legislature" for today’s budget crunches, asserting, "You’re forced to deal with this issue because the State of New York and the teachers have created an unending rise in the cost of education."
But Fiona Collins, whose children attend Todd, wondered, “How much more can we ask the classroom teacher to do and still expect a quality product?” If the discussion cuts become reality, she asked, “How much longer can we expect our kids to thrive?”
Julie Snider thanked the teachers "for all they’ve done" but said, "The potential loss of 51 adults for our kids frightens me."
The teacher assistants—qualified to be teachers but working at far lower salaries—were hired last year to supplant the district’s popular but sometimes less-qualified teacher aides, who were fired. Now, 34 teaching assistants themselves face layoffs under one cutback option. And, as happened with the teacher aides a year ago, parents and others are riding to their defense.
Stephanie Casper considers "getting rid of" the assistants a mistake. When her son’s teacher was absent for a week, she recalled, "the aide [assistant] was there and it was seamless. It was wonderful." Concerned about teacher workload, Casper said, "I think we’re really asking a lot of them."
Saying, "I’m up here asking you to reconsider," one current assistant, Megan Kris, made her own pitch for retention. "I’d need hours to tell you the benefit of this model," she said. "When I take over [the classroom], there’s not even a hiccup, not even a second."
Perhaps a stouter defense came from a member of the school board. "I think the community needs or deserves an explanation for why TAs are being reduced again," said Vice President Jennifer Rosen.
Click here to view the budget presentation in its entirety.
Note: Fiona Collins was previously identified as a Todd Elementary School teacher. This has been corrected. We regret the error.