Board of Education members shot down a proposed plan by Rockville Centre school administrators that would have closed an $800,000 gap in the 2018-19 budget, asking the district to look elsewhere for cuts.
Robert Bartels, assistant superintendent for business and personnel, presented the plan, which included cutting the frequency of a Foreign Language in the Elementary School, or FLES, program; reducing hours for aides in the district’s five elementary schools by 10 percent; and eliminating a plan to hire a district-wide security coordinator. He added that an expected additional state aid increase of $100,000, which appeared to be affirmed on Monday, when the State Education Department projected nearly $12.6 million in state aid for Rockville Centre schools, would help close the gap.
The planned cuts came two weeks after Bartels unveiled the district’s proposed $117.8 million budget for the 2018-19 school year, an increase of nearly 4.6 percent over the current spending plan. The tax levy, or amount that the district will collect from the district’s taxpayers, was expected to increase by 2.97 percent, just below the tax cap of 3.03 percent, when capital exemptions are considered.
Trustee Tara Hackett was the first to question cutting FLES, which gives students in grades one through five an opportunity to learn conversational Spanish before moving on to more advanced language courses. The $150,000 cut in the program would either reduce the number of days the program is offered per week or delay the start of the program to third grade, Bartels said.
Hackett and other board members voiced opposition to cutting a program without sufficient data or knowledge of its educational impact on the students. Dr. Chris Pellettieri, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, backed the board’s concerns, noting that FLES is a program that sets Rockville Centre apart from some other districts.
“It has a benefit, but is it a benefit that Rockville Centre can afford?” said Board of Education President John O’Shea. “I don’t know.” He added that he was not in favor of cutting it without further information.
Thomas Ricupero, principal of Francis F. Wilson Elementary School, said that students enjoy the FLES program. “…They’re singing songs in there and dancing and having a great time,” he noted. But when faced with a tight budget, Ricupero added, there are not other expenses the elementary schools can afford to cut without impacting instruction.
“Is this a major, mandatory area for us as educators for our kids to go on to the Regents diplomas and I.B. and so forth?” Ricupero said of FLES. “Have we done it without it? Yes, we have. It could be viewed more like an enrichment.”
Darren Raymar, principal of William S. Covert Elementary School, who sat alongside Ricupero and the other elementary school principals at a side table in South Side High School’s meeting room, further clarified to the board that he agreed that FLES was a great program, but that options are slim. “If the budget was balanced, we’d be thrilled to cut nothing,” he said. He added that a 10 percent reduction of aide hours was “a huge issue,” calling aides “some of the hardest workers” in the district.
Riverside Elementary School Principal Patricia Bock agreed. “The aides really do all of the background work that some people don’t see that much of, but they cover those critical times during lunch and recess,” she said. “We need the people that we have.”
The board did not voice opposition to eliminating the plan to hire a security coordinator — a cost of $100,000 — for the district as part of planned security enhancements in response to the deadly mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February. District officials clarified that not hiring a security coordinator would not affect the plan to hire a security guard for each elementary school, adding that those guards are expected to start this month.
The trustees asked the administration to present new options that did not include cutting FLES and hours for school aides. “I feel like there’s got to be stuff somewhere to cut that’s not people and not learning tools,” Hackett said. “I would hate to see the elementary schools be deprived of one of the only enrichment programs that they’re given.”
The board also spoke out against cutting money for contingent staffing — in which personnel are hired when needed and for limited periods.
Schools Superintendent Dr. William Johnson said that this has been one of the toughest budgets to balance in recent years. An increase of $2.3 million is expected to go toward payroll increases, and more than $600,000 is slated for new staffing. But Johnson said that one of the biggest hurdles in balancing this year’s budget is dealing with a $700,000, or 8 percent, increase in health insurance premiums, as well as a $300,000 total increase in the Employees Retirement System and Teachers Retirement System budget lines.
“Do we look at the music program?” Johnson said to the board, referring to where cuts might be made. “Do we look at physical education? Do we look at interscholastic athletics?
“I’m not sure exactly where we will end up,” he continued, “but no matter what the discussion is from this point forward, it’s going to be very uncomfortable.”
Johnson added that administrators tried to look at areas that they felt had the least impact, and would meet the week after the district’s spring break to create a new plan. A preliminary budget hearing will be held on April 17, which school officials said is the last chance for the board to finalize the budget before it is put to a public vote on May 15.
“We just need to understand that we’ve gone beyond the comfort level,” he said at the meeting, “and now are going to begin picking away at things which are going to affect the overall instructional program in some way or another.”