Things have got to change, said Scott Vallar, a parent in the Bedford school district, to Michelle Nigro, a teacher at Bedford Hills Elementary School, as they puzzled over cost-cutting proposals for the 2012-13 school district budget.
“Why should public employees receive more benefits than private employees?” he asked—mentioning contribution-free health care and retirement plans as employee benefits the school district could no longer afford—as they considered whether to re-open the teachers contract or seek a one-time salary concession from the union.
Nigro replied that as a “tier four” teacher in the district, she did contribute to her health care and pension costs, a point Vallar and his tablemates were not aware of.
They were participating in a simulation exercise in which participants were asked by Bedford school officials to prioritize programs in order to balance the 2012-13 district budget.
If the economic crisis in Albany and its subsequent affect on local school budgets has a divisive impact in some towns—pitting taxpayer against teacher, public union benefits against the interests of school children—Bedford school officials did their part to bring together its diverse community at Monday night’s “Future Focus” public engagement session.
“This is an opportunity to walk in someone else’s shoes,” said Superintendent of Schools Jere Hochman to approximately 80 community members gathered in the high school cafeteria. “We hope you gain at least one new perspective tonight.”
That appeared to happen in more than one group.
“Hearing from a teacher was something I don’t normally get to do and it was so helpful,” said Vallar, who serves on the district’s budget advisory committee. Barbara Grossman, a former school board member who was also seated at their table, agreed.
“I never hear the viewpoints I heard tonight. This is a great opportunity to hear new perspectives,” she said.
Sal DiCarlo, a parent in the district, said the event was a good use of his time. “I think more than ever people are becoming educated on the real costs of education—understanding the reasons why our budget and finances are the way they are. And nights like this are helping to educate the public and parents in the community. People are coming out who have never come out before.”
Long-Range Planning and Budget Fixes
During the round-robin-style program, participants were first allowed to choose one of six long-range planning topics to discuss; later they were assigned to a group role-play in which they made “decisions” impacting the school budget.
Program topics—culled from long-range planning meetings and parent feedback—included foreign language in the elementary schools, academic rigor or ‘the race to nowhere,’ student programs, budget and taxes, sustainability practices, and the district clock and calendar.
Groups of about 6-8 people were given 30 minutes to “unpack” the topic and make a recommendation to the rest of the audience, who then voted by holding up a green “yes” card or red “no” card.
Every single initiative suggested by participants won a majority of yes votes, amid some grumbling from participants.
After hearing a recommendation to maintain student programs outside of the core curriculum, including music, arts, sports, field trips and a low student-to-teacher ratio, one participant said “this is like asking a kid if they want ice cream—who would say no to that?”
Hochman responded that there were a few “no’s” in the room, and it was a time to “take straw polls” from the community.
Another recommendation to re-configure the school day and district calendar seemed to garner group support. Given the number of snow days and lost instruction time, a group including Beth Starpoli, athletic director, Adrienne Viscardi, ESL coordinator, and community members Greg Raue, Steve Torbella, Becky Sussman, Jennifer Shore and Barbara Grossman said they wanted to look at eliminating February vacation, having a longer school day and shifting toward set times for teacher meetings and staff development.
During the budget reduction role-play, participants were given a laptop to run a variety of financial scenarios that would lead to a $3 million budget reduction in 2012-13.
The most popular initiatives took a macro-view: re-opening the teachers’ contract coupled with a slight (.75 – 1 percent) increase in the tax levy, reconfiguring the middle school model, moving to a contracted transportation service and closing an elementary school. Less popular were smaller-ticket items such as eliminating student field trips.
Hochman said the exercises were designed to help the community understand the many approaches to achieving savings and to show how what one person feels strongly about may not matter to the next individual.
“We represent a broad and wide community,” he said. “We want to do everything we can to get through [the next two years] and we will study your recommendations closely.”
The district will post the group recommendations on its website.