A Future for Our Schools?

If the Ossining School District is cutting teachers every year, while gaining students every year, what is the long-term plan for educating my sons?

Last night the Ossining Board of Education held another meeting to discuss the proposed school budget.  I wasn’t able to attend, so have expressed my concerns to our School Board Trustees in an email copied below.

Dear Board of Education,

My eldest son is in Pre-K.  Next year both my sons will be at Park.  We are thrilled with the program.  My son’s teacher (Daisy Neri) is excellent.  In fact, every teacher I speak with at Park is positive and enthusiastic about the school.   Here’s my biggest concern…

If the Ossining School District is cutting teachers every year, while gaining students every year, what is the long-term plan for educating my sons?

I realize that you are constrained by a 2% tax cap, as well as by an electorate that is understandably reluctant to increase the school taxes.  But when I hear Board of Education Trustees selling me on a budget that has less teachers and more students, I have to ask, what kind of a program will be in place a decade from now when my children are at OHS?  How big will their classes be?  How limited will their course offerings be?

A good school system is part of why we came to Ossining to build our family.  There are dozens of terrific things about Ossining that reassure us of the wisdom of our choice.  How we will fund our schools is a dark cloud on a bright future for my kids.  Do you have a realistic long-term vision that foreshadows a positive future for the Ossining School District?  If so, please start illustrating that light at the end of the tunnel.  Right now, I’m not seeing it.


Victoria Gearity

Concerned Parent, Taxpayer & Voter

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Elizabeth Cornwell Hoffman March 30, 2012 at 03:19 AM
The board is constrained by a combination of the tax cap, along with Albany-mandated increases in pension set asides that don't leave them enough money on the table to maintain the programs/staff we have in place. Even if they propose a budget with the very highest increase allowed by the cap, once they allocate the money for the mandated pension increases, they don't have enough money left over to keep everything we now have in place. "Three percent of New York property tax collections were used to pay pension costs in 2001; by 2015, pension costs are expected to eat up 35 percent of property tax collections." (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/11/nyregion/deficits-push-municipalities-to-desperation.html?pagewanted=all) When you used to use 3% of your budget dollars for a certain item and you now are using over 20% of your budget for the same item, you have a lot less to spend on everything else. And when your revenues have been capped at a rate much lower than your non-negotiable costs are going up, you have no option but to cut from the spots that are left over. It is exceptionally sad and exceptionally scary.
Victoria Gearity for Ossining Mayor March 30, 2012 at 12:11 PM
I understand the BOE is working hard to make the most of a limited budget. I know and admire many of the trustees. They are fellow parents, homeowners, and taxpayers in our community. They work countless thankless hours on our behalf. What I want to know is that someone is looking at the big picture. Allow me this analogy...If the Ossining School District were a corporation and I were an investor, knowing that the board did an excellent job working within a limited budget in a still challenging economy and that it's better than some other districts in our area, might be reassuring in the short-term. I might even choose to invest in this corporation if I knew they had a long-term plan to make their product as good, or better, going forward. I'm not seeing a future where anything but an increasingly weaker education for my kids is possible. Is there a big picture plan that exists that will give me some reason to hope that is not true? If a long-term plan exists I wish someone would articulate it. What needs to happen to make it a reality? Likely the obstacles are big. Likely they will demand work beyond just a local level. So let's start figuring that out. Because a slightly lesser quality education each year is not a long-term plan.
Elizabeth Cornwell Hoffman March 30, 2012 at 03:13 PM
Indeed, accepting steady decline is not a plan - California, when put into this same bind (state mandated caps on revenue combined with state mandated increases in certain expenditures) got this astonishingly rapid result: "California’s education system was once the envy of the nation. Education Week now ranks it 46th for achievement in grades K-12, below Alabama and South Carolina." (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/26/opinion/26thu1.html) I think there is considerable shared ground between liberals and conservatives regarding the need to fight unfunded mandates coming from Albany. The state pension money pool was decimated in 2008, and contractual agreements to pay out pensions for retiring baby boomers is going to steadily ramp up for the next 10 years, meaning that the demands for fresh dollars in that pot will grow, not shrink. And public concern about NY's very high tax rates are not going to allow for major tax hikes every year to compensate. That leaves us only able to look at other sections of the budget for cuts, and relief from Albany regarding the spending mandates for items we don't want will free us money to spend on what we do want - which is having enough quality teachers with enough time and resources to do the job they love in the way that is best for kids.
Victoria Gearity for Ossining Mayor March 30, 2012 at 07:35 PM
Elizabeth, I agree, enough quality teachers with enough time and resources is a top priority. You've offered a detailed account of demands that explain our current and future situation. If the only solution being discussed is mandate relief, what are the mandated items we don't want? Who decides which mandates are unnecessary? Is there a path to mandate relief? What about healthcare? Is there discussion about what can be done to address skyrocketing healthcare costs?
Elizabeth Cornwell Hoffman March 30, 2012 at 11:15 PM
Healthcare may depend largely on the collective wisdom (or political doggedness) of Justices Robers and Kennedy. I dearly hope that crippling economic problem will be tackled effectively in our nations' near future. One piece of good news for Ossining: the school board closed a deal just this morning that will provide their employees with the same level of health care coverage as they have previously enjoyed, but through a new company with advantageous pricing that will save us $2.5 million next year - but even with that savings locked in, the district still must institute a hiring freeze (which, due to increased enrollment numbers means larger elementary class sizes due to the same # of teachers handling a larger # of kids) in order to meet the tax cap limit. (The expense savings had already been figured into the budget numbers the board was working with, but the final confirmation that they would definitely be realized only happened this morning.) Mandate relief is definitely not the only solution -though I think it will be a major contributory solution absolutely must happen in conjunction with many other, additional fixes. Other solutions that should be explored include shared services among districts to reduce spending on back office work and renegotiated contracts with admin and teachers to save jobs in exchange for lower annual pay increases.


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