10 LI school district budgets head back to voters
Long Island teachers and other school employees face growing calls to make salary concessions to avoid looming job cuts - especially in districts preparing for budget revotes.
Ten districts vote again Tuesday on trimmed budgets, which would shed more than 140 positions overall. Virtually all districts that passed budgets last month plan at least a few staff reductions - a handful plan scores of cuts - either through attrition or layoffs.
In Westbury, which votes on a $105.2-million budget with a 5.48 percent tax hike, the more than 500 school employees received notice last month of possible layoffs. No individuals there have yet received pink slips, but Wyandanch recently told 15 teachers they could lose jobs with the close of classes later this month.
"That hurts," said Martin Greene, president of the 189-member Wyandanch Teachers Association. He added that his union is willing to negotiate a partial pay freeze, but that talks have stalled over the question of how this would affect individuals at different salary levels.
Wyandanch is proposing a $55-million budget with a 3.24 percent tax hike - down sharply from the 13.94 percent projected last month.
Uncertainty over future employment is imposing particular strain on young teachers at the bottom of seniority lists.
Paul Speranza, 27, worries he'll lose his job as a substitute elementary teacher, if his district in Nassau County loses a second vote and has to cut spending further. Speranza, who holds bachelor's and master's degrees, says he barely manages to pay living expenses on his part-time substitute's pay of $300 a week, plus fees earned as a private math tutor.
"If I wanted to start a family now, I couldn't even think about it," he added.
Districts also face financial insecurity: State lawmakers are 74 days late in approving a school-aid package. As a result, school officials can only estimate how high they'll have to raise property taxes to compensate for aid losses.
Most districts with revotes are taking a conservative stand - trimming payrolls and spending, while projecting tax hikes that are relatively high. Many districts also warn of further job losses - as well as cuts in programs ranging from sports to full-day kindergarten - if voters reject budgets a second time. Under state rules, those districts would adopt contingency budgets with spending increases close to zero.
Alarmed by the threat to student services, many taxpayers are demanding that school administrators and teachers take cuts in salaries.
Tina Kurek, the mother of two Herricks students, says salary issues contributed last month to her district's budget defeat by one vote.
"I think people kind of felt teachers were untouchable," said Kurek, adding she considered such concerns overblown.
Craig Lagnese, president of the Herricks Teachers Association, declined to discuss salary issues, but said his union would do whatever possible through "ongoing conversations" with the school board to maintain good relations.
A five-year union contract settled last July calls for a 2.5 percent raise next year, along with scheduled "step" increases averaging 1.9 percent.
"We work in a community we value - we love working here," Lagnese said.
Teachers in eight of 124 Long Island districts have agreed to give up all or part of their raises this year or next. In addition, teachers in East Rockaway, which votes Tuesday on a $33.3-million budget, have agreed to raise their share of health care payments from 19 percent to 25 percent.
In Westbury, which expects to shed more than 20 jobs, along with summer-school classes, officials say efforts to win union concessions have not yet succeeded. A five-year teacher contract signed in October provides a 3 percent raise next year, along with "steps" averaging about 1.5 percent.
"We hope to see movement, so we don't have to lay anybody off," said Karin Campbell, the board president.
But Mike Burger, president of Westbury's teacher union, said internal squabbling among board members impedes any agreement. Three union-backed board candidates won election last month - results that would normally give their side a majority starting in July.
However, the board's current majority last week voted three members out for allegedly missing meetings. This leaves in doubt the board's future direction, including any decisions regarding layoffs.
"It's not good for our young teachers, because nobody knows who's coming or going," Burger said.
With Nomaan Merchant