School board prepares for budget vote

Bill San Antonio

Residents of the Manhasset School District district will head to the polls to cast ballots on Tuesday, May 21, voting on a $89,296,198 school budget for the 2013-14 academic year that will require a 60 percent supermajority to pass and school board seats for incumbents Regina Rule and Craig Anderson who are running unopposed.

The budget reflects a 2.56 percent rise in spending that will require a 5.98 tax levy increase.  The increase in the tax levy exceeds the state-mandated tax cap.

The final budget figure is down from the 2.71 percent budget-to-budget increase and 6.47 percent tax levy increase announced April 4 and considerably lower than the initial 4.61 percent budget-to-budget increase and 8.78 percent tax levy increase introduced March 4.

“Even one failed vote, depending on what happens, could significantly undermine the programs, and once you get to that point, under the tax cap, you simply never recover,” Deputy Superintendent for Business and Finance Rosemary Johnson said April 17. “That is why the first vote is absolutely so critical.”

If the budget is not passed after a second vote June 18, the district would have to cut approximately $4.5 million from its final adopted budget, to $2,306,897, a figure roughly $2.3 million less than the 2012-13 budget.

If the budget is voted down twice, board members have said they would condense classes and eliminate teachers throughout the district and eliminate all interscholastic athletic programs and other extracurricular programs, school officials said.

Over the last four years, the district has each year increased its budget by an average of 2.02 percent and its tax levy by 1.69 percent, numbers Manhasset Superintendent of Schools Charles Cardillo has said are much better than county averages over the same span.

During that time, the board was able to maintain a low tax levy by using approximately $8.4 million in reserve funds, which depleted the account entirely, school officials said.

After a reassessment of its fund balance, the board plans to use nearly $250,000 from that account and from its worker’s compensation and employee retirement reserve funds.

“We were ahead of the curve [compared with other districts] with respect to the use of reserves to offset the tax levy, others are simply starting to catch up,” Johnson said. “It’s not a pattern, they haven’t followed that pattern. So although though their budget, they’re keeping their tax levy lower than their allowable cap by doing what we did years ago.”

Since April 4, the board eliminated $526,964 from the budget by cutting four proposed teacher’s aid positions throughout the elementary and secondary education levels, as well as one kindergarten section at Munsey Park Elementary School and one second grade section at both Munsey Park and Shelter Rock elementary schools.

The board was also aided in its efforts to reduce the budget by a new state pension contribution stabilization program, which will reduce the working budget by approximately $1.2 million. 

State-mandated pension contributions to the teachers retirement system were 16.25 percent higher than last year’s and have increased 262 percent since 2009-10. Contributions to the employee retirement system, which increased 20.90 percent since last year, have increased 299 percent since 2009-10.

“When people take a step back and really look at this and say that we have over the top spending and so forth, that is really an incredibly inaccurate statement,” Cardillo said April 17.

Laurie Pandelakis, a spokeswoman from the Manhasset Proponents for School Accountability, one of the chief opponents of the school budget, said the contributions are so high because of the teachers union’s power in negotiating contracts, which include annual salary and benefit increases regardless of merit.

“The board has had no desire to curtail the salaries and benefits in any way,” Pandelakis told Blank Slate Media last week. “We went to political action in going to Albany and having seminars Island-wide and Upstate, and when we got the tax cap we though ‘Eureka, we’ve arrived.’ And here we are two years later and they’re talking about a 6-percent increase.”

Formed in 2003, the organization’s purpose is to monitor all significant influences affecting the quality and cost of education in the Manhasset Public School District, according to its Web Site.

The organization has urged voters throughout the community to overturn the budget, writing letters to local newspapers on the North Shore and leaving fliers around town so that the supermajority is not reached.

The group took hold, Pandelakis said, after a number of Manhasset residents fearing they’d be taxed out of their homes began attending board of education meetings.

Pandelakis said the group began holding informal meetings of its own and aligned itself with similar educational reform groups across Long Island.

After the state passed its mandated tax cap two years ago, Pandelakis said the group became dormant, but when the board of education announced its 2013-14 budget, the group’s supporters began re-organizing.  

On May 1, Pandelakis spoke at a forum that also featured East Islip’s Andrea Vecchio, Port Washington’s Frank Russo and Oyster Bay’s Anita MacDougall – all of whom speaking on behalf of other organizations opposed to districts exceeding the tax cap.

Despite its resurgence, Pandelakis said the Manhasset Proponents for School Accountability hasn’t had the opportunity to organize itself to support potential candidates to challenge Rule and Anderson.

“When they started announcing their 6 percent [tax cap increase], we were not really organized or on our mark to get organized,” Pandelakis said. “You need to get somebody involved in [running for the school board], and someone you can get behind. We were not able to do that.”

Rule and Anderson, each elected to the board of education in 2010, said they are seeking a second term on the board because they believe they’ve acted within the best interests of Manhasset taxpayers and have proven themselves as financially responsible trustees.

“My record, as member of the board, delivering fiscally responsible budgets and contracts and using reserves and fund balance to lower tax levies, shows that I am not a tax-and-spend leader,” Rule told Blank Slate Media in April. “The most recent two-year contract with our teachers demonstrates that: our teachers agreed to take a zero percent increase this year and only half a step, next year a 1 percent increase and only half a step in addition to other givebacks. I have supported the transition to a ‘pay-as-you-go’ model returning taxpayer dollars to the community as the community has wanted.” 

They are also running, Rule said, because they believe in Cardillo’s leadership.

“I am running because I want to show my support for our outstanding, superhuman superintendent, Charlie Cardillo, and his superb leadership,” she said. “I feel that Charlie’s unselfish and unwavering devotion to our students, our schools and our community deserves our unwavering support in return.”

Cardillo said the views of the Manhasset Proponents for School Accountability don’t reflect those of “mainstream Manhasset” and that “Pandelakis and friends are not saying anything they haven’t been saying for years.”

“The only time they’re really seen is at this time of the year,” Cardillo said last week by phone. “It’s comparable to Groundhog Day, where they pop their heads up, look around and go back underground. They’re on the outside looking in and trying to create an atmosphere of negativity in a town that most people are proud of.”

Cardillo said the Manhasset Proponents for School Accountability, in urging its supporters to vote against the budget, does not have the best interests of Manhasset students in mind.

“They continue to put forth information that would change the total fiber of what Manhasset schools have built, and that $4.5 million reduction would completely change the quality of the district,” Cardillo said. “We’re nationally considered one of the top high schools in America, and yet what they’re recommending would completely destroy the underpinnings of how Manhasset got to that level, and make Manhasset very un-Manhasset-like as a result.”

Despite Cardillo’s confidence in the budget, the board has become concerned that the public may only feel comfortable passing a budget in which spending is kept low, and may not understand that programs that could impact the futures of district’s students are at stake.

“Here we sit at our number and that 2.02 number over the last four years really has not changed, and at some point it needs to change,” Manhasset school board President Carlo Prinzo said April 17. “We need to grow with the times. The community needs to understand that we need to spend the money to support the educational process, because it needs to grow.”

“It always astounds me, we send kids to Yale and to every great college and university in this country,” Prinzo added. “We send to kids to Europe. At some point, we have to figure out that we have to spend. It’s not going to happen in the box that we’re building and to keep squeezing and squeezing and squeezing just doesn’t work.”

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Bill San Antonio

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