As the April 21 budget adoption by the Rye City School District looms, can the Board and Administration be convinced that the cap override is not necessary before the public vote May 19?
By Bertrand deFrondeville
As the April 21 budget adoption by the Rye City School District looms, can the Board and Administration be convinced that the cap override is not necessary before the public vote May 19? On the contrary, there is plenty of room for millions in immediate savings avoiding the $3.55 million cap override, and for phasing in further millions in each of the coming years. All would be in accordance with the District Mission Statement, which seeks to maintain education excellence with fiscal responsibility.
This is the dual challenge for all in our community: students, teachers, administration, and trustees, and also resident parents and non-parents who provide 90 percent of the financing though ever-rising property taxes.
The first part, education excellence, does not seem in question, given our rank in state and national standings. Many residents, including me, were indeed attracted by our schools’ reputation.
And yet, the Program for International Students Assessment finds education of 15-year-old U.S. students quite mediocre compared to many countries, rich or less so, spanning the world from East Asia to Scandinavia. One way to expand our horizons is to make the International Baccalaureate part of our curriculum, as we drop spurious “gut” courses such as Orienteering or Orientation to Law in 6th grade if still extant.
When we turn to “fiscal responsibility,” we need to awaken our leaders, Superintendent and Board President, from the erroneous convictions expressed on the website, and in presentations to the community, such as the Recommended Budget presentation of February 24, 2015 and subsequent interview with The Rye Record detailed in their March 4, 2015 issue and widely distributed by the District.
Indeed, the graph below and further data analyses fail to support the two fiscal leitmotifs that (1) the District has been “recently conservative,” and need breathing space given (2) a “surging enrollment.”
First, it is true that enrollment has increased by 12.4% since 2007-08 and 18-18.2% since 2005-06. But how much is this relevant to present day? Especially when total enrollment has stabilized in the last three years (3,303; 3,344; 3,341) compared to 2,830 in 2005 and 2,976 in 2007. Let’s focus on the recent past, even as we scan the past 14 years for perspective.
Second, the Budget curve does not seem to show conservatism except for the brief period of flat budgets from 2008-2010. Given the low inflation since the beginning of the century after the wild ride of the 1990s, a simple measure of conservatism lies in comparing the growth rate of the Budget to that of Enrollment.
That ratio B/E of the two growth rates is revealing: 3.55 average 2001-2015, swelling to 5.1 from 2014 to 2015, or even higher, 7.4 over the last two years. So much for recent conservatism… The Budget grew less than Enrollment only in the 2 years 2008-2010, when the annual growth rate percentages were: B/E = 0.837/2.55 = 0.325 and 1.302/2.52 = 0.516.
The days of true conservatism are long past.
In researching further the devil in the details, we would question two examples, as published in this paper’s interview with School Superintendent Dr. Alavarez and Board members.
Class sizes: “The District guideline is 18 to 22. We’re at maximum class size at all the schools.” As a matter of fact, that guideline applies only to the elementary schools, and their enrollment is decreasing by shifting to the High School. Where is the corresponding reduction from K-5 maximum size or number of sections? And why then is this Budget labeled as “not optimal: no teachers are being added to the elementary schools” (where enrollment has declined). By contrast, smarter districts raise the average size every two grades through K-5 to transition into middle school and use a higher maximum in bad times.
Special Ed: “As our enrollment has grown, so has our Special Ed.” First, we know that enrollment has not grown at all since 2014, so that cannot be an excuse for the huge cost surge of 44% from current budget. Instead, we should see reductions as we implement the strong recommendations of an outside study, which called our approach substantially costlier and less effective than different widely used practices.
Before we spell out in coming installments savings well beyond the “$3.55 million override,” we wish to question the repeated excuse that “Unfunded Mandates” (UFMs) leave us no choice, especially when they affect employee share of benefits, which are negotiated Districtwide. On the other hand, each year we put aside millions in excess margins (also in the graph), which State Comptroller DiNapoli called illegal whenever they bring the Unassigned Fund Balance above the 4% maximum allowance. Why can’t we then initiate a boycott of these UFMs (as some are doing on Testing attendance) for say three years, so that the worthier mandates are financed in other ways than by property taxes, and the others simply dropped.
The “cap” is our ally in this, as it was supposed to bring out that very outcome. Other allies are school districts and our representatives State Senator George Latimer and Assemblyman Steve Otis.