'Draft' School Budget Cuts Draw 60 in Briarcliff

Designed to spur discussion of possible belt-tightening, the economies do just that—for four hours.

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.

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"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.
Lisa Jenner February 28, 2013 at 04:05 PM
Help me understand your points, Mike. Are you saying that Neal Miller should sit on his hands for the rest of the year and not make any contributions to the day to day operations of the district? Are you also saying that Bashford, Marinaccio and Rotundo - all of whom have children in the district - purposely set up the budget in such a way that future boards would be required to make cuts that would harm the education of the children in Briarcliff, including their own?
Mike Valenti February 28, 2013 at 04:48 PM
I make no personal attacks. I simply review history and assign the names of those responsible at the time. There is an election coming up with two seats opening up. So, the community needs to understand the full picture here. A “lame duck” superintendent should not be leading the charge on a budget he will not need to live with or be accountable for. The incoming superintendent needs to take a more active role. The prior board (Rotundo/Bashford/Marinaccio/Ranno) clearly made sure to leave the district holding the bag into the future on their aggressive tax reduction ideology.
Randall Petronus February 28, 2013 at 05:05 PM
Agree that Kashian needs to get more actively involved in achieving a viable outcome - but Miller also has to stay engaged as well.
Lisa Jenner February 28, 2013 at 06:42 PM
How can you possibly say that "the prior board made sure to leave the district holding the bag" and say you make no personal attacks? How can you say Neal Miller lacks basic leadership qualities and lacks vision and say you make no personal attacks? I think Mr. Bashford, Mr. Rotundo, Ms. Ranno, Ms. Marinaccio and Mr. Miller show incredible restraint and class not responding. You, on the other hand, do not.
W Obermeyer February 28, 2013 at 06:42 PM
The current superintendent is being paid a salary and has not yet been replaced. Is it not enough that he gets paid up to the end of the year - nonsensical that he be removed from the process now. From the comments being directed at him, I presume the poor man will be blamed for whatever outcome there is. Rather than play the same vindictive tune over and over, look at the figures and then wonder if the previous board had not effected prudent cuts, how far beyond the pale would we have been now?
Mike Valenti February 28, 2013 at 07:32 PM
Those who support/supported the prior board (Rotundo/Bashford/Marinaccio/Ranno) will get a reality check in the May school board elections. You can do all the posturing you like here on the Patch. But the reality is that the community is extremely unlikely to elect another one of your candidates. As incoming superintendent, Jim Kaishian absolutely should take a leadership role in this year's budget process. He will need to live with it's consequences.
Randall Petronus February 28, 2013 at 07:35 PM
How about if we focus on constructive problem solving and get off the OCD blaming - it is boring and counter-productive.
Janna Ross February 28, 2013 at 07:59 PM
Please, we need respectful discourse. We need a superintendent (SI) supporting lobbying efforts in Albany (ie unsustainably 8% ROI pension mandates) reducing mandates as a whole, as the effectiveness of current teaching methods/modalities continue to be questioned whether relevant/effective for current/future student bodies, in both lower & higher US ed models. The whole system is in crisis. Maybe we require a lobbying firm rather than a SI, who is supposed to effectively address issues, interact with BOE, Teachers' Unions and/or Assocs within district schools, those personnel heading district schools, & issues arising from statesmen in Albany. I'm unaware of SI effectively interceding in Albany to reduce teacher benefits or other stateborn mandates. Does such a person/position exist? Is there conflict-of-interest here? Didn't most SIs 'rise thru the ranks', being teachers at some point in their careers? The current SI's role may be another consequence of a system in crisis. Every tax payer should be concerned with the value of a good education (regardless ot having children), & are we able to continue offering that to our children and community? Who will be the future doctors, critical thinkers, and creative people addressing some of our faliures? Can we appeal to other BOEs within county, joining together to lobby Albany? The community needs to understand both immediate& long term needs, & address this credible overwhelming crisis currently sitting in our laps.
W Obermeyer February 28, 2013 at 08:01 PM
Obviously the incoming superintendent should be involved, that is a no-brainer. As for all the posturing on the elections - run forest run.
Randall Petronus February 28, 2013 at 08:25 PM
A lobbying firm is a good idea, provided it doesn't turn into an arms war between them and the teachers' lobby. That would be even more costly. Any real solution will require concessions from teachers, administrators, taxpayers and students. Plus, it will require putting the expectations of students' families on par with the greater community's. To move into Briarcliff, push for higher and higher taxe rates while the kids are in school and then move out is a losing proposition for people who want to live here there entire lives. Plus it will eventually discourage new home buyers who won't abide astronomical school tax rates.
Mike Valenti February 28, 2013 at 08:36 PM
Excellent point. There is no cohesive effort/mechanism pushing back on all that Albany dumps down to the local level for us to figure out how to fund. We are now at a point where we must begin to diminish our educational component annually in order to financial sustain the monster created in Albany. However, we must recognize that we do negotiate contracts with our unions on a local basis. In that regard, we must re-examine and perhaps renogiate. And the teachers unions need to help us find other cost reductions other than instructional FTE's. Otherwise, the folks with the spreadsheets will take the easiest route and cut teachers. What teachers unions need to understand is that teacher layoffs are ultimately their OWN doing. THEY have been too pigish in Albany and too pigish in their negotiation demands with their districts. Now...to fund all of the goodies they get that the typical private sector worker doesn't get...we have to LAY OFF TEACHERS.
McKey Rivers February 28, 2013 at 09:19 PM
There is an apparent conflict of interest with the superintendent of schools covered by the same pension program and health insurance plan as is provided to the teaching staff. This is the situation Statewide and Briarcliff is not unique in this regard. Briarcliff is unique, however, insofar as the incoming Superintendent rose through the ranks within the school district and therefore has well established attachments to teaching staff, which is not the case in area school districts Briarcliff refers to for comparison. The single greatest opportunity that a school district has to control cost is in the contract negotiations with the teachers union. There Briarcliff suffers a real conflict of interest. The school board president, Sal Maglietta, sought and obtained a political endorsement from the teachers union in May 2010 when he ran for election to the school board. To my knowledge no other school board member in the cohort of school districts Briarcliff likes to include itself has a school board member who was elected with the endorsement of the district's teachers union. The circumstances of the incoming Superintendent and the school board president do not augur well for taxpayers in the upcoming teacher contract negotiations.
Randall Petronus February 28, 2013 at 09:43 PM
Perhaps Mr. Maglietta (and other Board members) can make their positions known to their constituents prior to negotiations? Sal, are you listening?
Mike Valenti February 28, 2013 at 09:58 PM
When an administrator steps up to the superintendent role, they are fully cognizant that they will now be in a different position vis-a-vis the teachers union. I'd like to believe that Jim Kaishian understood and accepted that when he accepted the role and that he has the ability to execute his new position in the appropriate manner. Regarding union endorsements. Most of my cousins are teachers throughout the state of NY. It is common practice for unions to endorse school board candidates. In 2010 it happened in Briarcliff for the first time. It allowed the candidates who did not receive endorsements (and their sponsors within the community) to crush a truckload of sour grapes. Apparently the bitter taste of those sour grapes still sits in the craw of their throats. Continued......
Mike Valenti February 28, 2013 at 09:59 PM
Sal Maglietta and I both received endorsements from the BTA (Teachers union). Neither of us sought the endorsements. We were asked to meet with the BTA and did so. Following the meetings, the BTA endorsed us. Contracts, negotiations and related matters were NEVER discussed at those meetings. What was discussed was the oppressive work environment that had become intolerable under board members Marinaccio, Rotundo and Bashford. These individuals were treating faculty and staff like door mats and morale was pitifully low. The BTA endorsed Sal and I because they felt our respect and our support and felt their working environment might improve. In those meetings I offered, on an UNSOLICITED BASIS, that I felt the unions needed to make huge concessions and give-backs in their contract negotiations and that I felt then (as now) that their packages were far too rich and needed to be closer aligned to private sector workers. I had assumed those comments would deter the union from endorsing me. Clearly, their issues were not around contract negotiations at the time but rather around their working conditions and environment.
Janna Ross February 28, 2013 at 10:02 PM
I didn't besmirch the incoming superintendent by stating there is and has been a conflict-of-interest deep-seated in the position, statewide, or country wide. These are some issues that quite possibly never crossed someone's mind. And again, we are throwing our laundry out on the street for everyone to see. Can't we all get along, without taking pot-shots at each other, especially in this open forum? I think the community as a whole would greatly appreciate, everyone on the BOE, and all their friends, getting along and working together, as we move foward. Aren't the issues difficult enough?
Mike Valenti February 28, 2013 at 10:13 PM
Randall, Werner, Lisa and McKey (whoever she really is) have no current representation on the school board. They are using this as a forum to revise history and position their candidates for the May school board election. Unfortunately, politics is a particularly dirty business here in Briarcliff due to this crew. The good news is that they have no shot at sponsoring a successful candidate in the May school board election. The bad news is that they don't recognize this and are using this as a forum to try.
Randall Petronus February 28, 2013 at 10:40 PM
Mike, you are right - participating in on-line dialogues with you always seems to devolve into a screed of name-calling and bitter resentment once you get going. I, for one, am going away to work on more positive solutions rather than listen (or read) to your frustrations. (dial tone......).
Mike Valenti February 28, 2013 at 10:46 PM
Call 'em as I see 'em. Lively debate and opposing opinions are fine. Revisionist history is not.
Lisa Jenner February 28, 2013 at 10:50 PM
First, as I have said before, I am not on any side as regards representation on the school board. I am on the side of the best possible education at an affordable price. As a person who devoted her entire adult life to public education in New York, I ran because I felt I had something to offer as an educational insider. I wanted to contribute and that was my only agenda.
Lisa Jenner February 28, 2013 at 11:04 PM
Second, I did not seek and did not want an endorsement by the teachers. I worked in three school districts in Westchester, and never once did the unions to which I belonged endorse school board candidates. I guess those districts must be out of sync with the rest of New York, since, apparently, it is common practice throughout the state. Regardless, it seems to me that it is totally inappropriate for the teachers to get involved in the election of a board that is supposed to represent the community. So, Mike, there are no sour grapes here about not getting an endorsement.
W Obermeyer February 28, 2013 at 11:07 PM
The community as a whole, not factions, are represented by the BOE, and they of course represent all taxpayers / residents. In my conversations with the former or current Boards they have always been clear that no special clique would get preference. To claim ownership or non representation is akin to paranoia and the us versus them attitude Briarcliff has been known for the past 10 years. Most contributors on the Patch have thoughtful and respectful comments. But the downside value of a blog is that you do get the rude, vindictive ones that cannot let go of history, and others that are consistently able to represent the lunatic fringe. Never a dull (sic) moment.
Lisa Jenner February 28, 2013 at 11:11 PM
Third, I would love to know exactly what it was that Marinaccio, Bashford and Rotundo were doing during their tenure that was crushing the morale of the teachers. Again, in my thirty six years in public education, I never once had enough contact with members of the boards of education that they influenced my daily work load and morale. If you are suggesting that the fear of teacher cuts was driving morale down, then the Briarcliff teachers better get used to the way it has always been in education, and the way it will surely be in the future with the tax cap. I've heard that morale is pretty low now, and not one of those enemy candidates is sitting on the board. I know... it is still the fault of Bashford, Rotundo, Marinaccio and Ranno - and probably Miller. I'm sure you will let us all know.
Lisa Jenner February 28, 2013 at 11:12 PM
Finally, Mike, would you get out that crystal ball that you apparently have that enables you to predict the outcome of the upcoming elections, when nobody has even declared candidacy yet? I need to know the upcoming lottery numbers as I am a retired school teacher and could use the money.
Janna Ross March 01, 2013 at 12:36 AM
I think anyone who might be motivated or interested in running for a BOE seat would be highly deterred by all its recent history, which is extemely unfortunate. It appears to be a tremendously thankless job. This is truly continuing to hurt this community.
Janna Ross March 01, 2013 at 12:37 AM
What happens if not one person steps forward for either of these upcoming seats?
Lisa Jenner March 01, 2013 at 12:54 AM
You are absolutely right, Janna. I can't imagine that anyone would want to take on this job, considering the number of hours it requires, and how, after years of service, people still continue to rake you over the coals so publicly.
W Obermeyer March 01, 2013 at 01:11 AM
Some candidates have used this forum to campaign. Revisionist history shows it did not, and will not work (again).
McKey Rivers March 01, 2013 at 01:12 AM
It's human nature for a person promoted through the ranks to feel loyalties to employees with whom he/she worked for many years, especially in an environment like schools where collegiality among employees is highly encouraged. While the incoming Superintendent may be able to rise above those sentiments, there remains a perception in the minds of many that the tough decisions will be decided in favor of old friends. To avoid conflict issues, most school districts in this area do not hire from within even although there may be strong candidates for superintendent in the district. Even more unusual is the appointment of an individual who never before served in a superintendent, acting superintendent, deputy or assistant superintendent position. To my knowledge, no other Westchester school district is in this position and I believe the first time this has occurred in Briarcliff. (Cont'd)
McKey Rivers March 01, 2013 at 01:13 AM
I have seen no evidence showing a lack of leadership or a bad fit with Superintendent Miller. Rather, he has performed well in maintaining the educational excellence of Briarcliff schools and in leading resolution and community involvement in addressing critical issues like the environmental problems with the district's fields, problems that he inherited. Absent specifics, residents are left to speculate that Superintendent Miller was dismissed and the High School principal installed so the BOE members could repay favors to their personal friends. Moreover, the circumstances of the dismissal of Superintendent Miller approximately 18 months after taking office has contributed to and reinforced the area wide perception that the Briarcliff School District is unstable and badly divided, the "banana republic" of Westchester school districts. And, it's costing taxpayers a lot of money.


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