Public tensions rise over Bay Shore school district finances
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The Bay Shore school district kicked off its budget season last week with a public workshop where tensions grew over public input into the district's financial affairs amid calls for transparency from residents.
Last month the school district was ranked fifth among the most fiscally stressed schools in New York by state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, placed in "significant stress" status. The district had reduced state funding of $16,291,000 over the past three years, according to Superintendent Karen Salmon, who said the district will scrutinize its spending as it awaits help from Albany.
"We are constantly battling increased school costs and one of the things that we need to do, I believe, as a school system, is to work with the legislators," Salmon said at the meeting Wednesday night.
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In response, some residents asked the board to focus on cutting expenses rather than awaiting state aid that may never come. They also asked that the board listen to their input on the district's finances.
"To be perfectly frank, there's not a lot you can do about the revenue," said Auleen Shelley, a Brightwaters resident. "I'm not sure what you're anticipating or where you're anticipating that those lost dollars are going to come from . . . [but] you have much more control over your expenses than your revenues."
The board did not release a budget proposal at the Wednesday night meeting because the state aid numbers have not yet been handed down to the district, school board president Mary Louise Cohen said.
A draft is expected to be presented at the next public budget meeting on Feb. 26. In March, the board will present an economic study on the district with final budget numbers expected by April.
Last year, the board adopted a $143.7 million budget that came with a 5.9 percent tax hike, costing the average homeowner about $420 more a year than 2012. The board also cut spending by 1.16 percent from the previous year and implemented a wage freeze for teachers to avoid laying off some 39 teachers.
This year, Salmon vowed to develop a budget that stays within the district's tax cap while implementing improvements in instructional technology and education programs for students with disabilities. She said she hopes to avoid cuts to staff, programs and services.
Due to a longer-than-expected executive session Wednesday night, the board reversed the order of events by putting the public comments portion before the budget talks took place. This concerned some residents who believed it stymied their efforts to be a part of the budget review process.
"I've been here for 20 years and I've never ever, over the last couple of months, seen this board start to shift like this," Bay Shore resident Charlie Flood said. "This is our community; you're our community . . . Open it up a little bit, there's a lot going on."
Flood's remarks prompted applause from many in the audience and from school board member Guy Leggio.
Trying to make amends with the crowd, Salmon offered to set up a town hall-style meeting with parents and residents to discuss budget concerns in addition to the four remaining budget meetings that are scheduled through April 9.
"We know our revenue streams are drying up," Salmon said. "We're going to be learning how to do more with less."
Bay Shore Union Free School District
Superintendent: Karen Salmon
General education budget (2010-11): $71,632,727 (cost per student: $12,096)
Special education budget (2010-11): $32,069,473 (cost per student: $38,453)
Total enrollment (Pre-K-12): 6,079
Average class size: 22.3 students
Eligible for free or reduced-price lunch: 2,949 (50%)
Limited English proficiency: 301 (5%)
Demographics: White (38%), Hispanic (36%), Black (21%), Asian (4%), Multiracial (1%)
Attendance rate: 96%
Graduation rate: 89.7%
Source: NY State Education Department Report Card, 2011-12 (latest data available)