Strong community divisions remain

By Michael Mell

The Garrison Union Free School (GUFS) District held its second budget workshop on March 9 to solicit additional community input toward creation of the 2011/12 school budget. The roll-over budget proposes a 3.54 percent year-to-year increase that, if approved, would result in a 4.95 percent tax levy increase.

Approximately 14 people attended, including members of the board and school administration. As with the first workshop, Superintendent Gloria Colucci began with a brief presentation summarizing the findings of the previous workshop, refining the budget numbers and posing the question: “What do we control?” Colucci’s presentation was framed around how little the district controls. Former members of the disbanded budget advisory committee took an opposite view.

What does GUFS control?
Referring to a pie chart indicating expenses the district controls, as a very small piece, Betsy Calhoun insisted that the “board controls more than the sliver” indicated on the chart. Colucci responded that “we control some aspects, but not all [of them.]” Joyce Blum, another budget advisory committee alum, stated that “we need [to go] line by line to have [this] discussion.}” Colucci respectfully disagreed and asked the group to focus on the broader issues. Goldie Green reminded the superintendent that a line-by-line budget had been promised for the second workshop and asked that it be distributed. Colucci replied that the line-by-line budget would be distributed after the small-group discussion was completed. “We want to hear a broad opinion first,” she said, “before going line by line . . . which is the board’s job.”
This exchange underscored a fundamental difference between the board’s approach, soliciting community input, and that of members of the defunct budget advisory committee who insist the budget is “a matter of dollars and cents” and that a 0 percent tax increase should be the goal (of the budget process.)

Varied suggestions  are made
At this point, Superintendent Colucci asked that further questions be held until after the small-group discussions, which are the raison d’íªtre of the workshop. As those in attendance divided themselves around two tables, she asked each group to consider and discuss how the district might foster growth and improvement while maintaining a stable tax rate. After a half hour, each group summarized the issues and concerns discussed. Speaking for one group, school business agent Susan Huetter summarized their discussions with the following list.

  • A 4.95 percent increase [to the tax levy] is too high and would be a hardship for many.
  • District should move to encourage more volunteerism.
  • Use volunteers to teach foreign languages rather than teachers.
  • Do not touch sports.
  • Outsource campus and grounds maintenance and repair.
  • Possibly combine grade levels for certain subjects: a study should be done.
  • Delete late bus. Much frustration with state-mandated bus runs

Board President Carol McCollough spoke for the other group which contained the former budget advisory committee members and whose comments focused more on cost-cutting measures.

  • More community involvement [is needed.] Look outside Garrison to search for volunteers. Look to other advertizing options; many don’t read Currents (the GUFS newsletter).
  • Zero percent increase to tax levy
  • Delete paid drama department staff in favor of volunteers.
  • Delete modified sports; Philipstown  Recreation Department can fill that need.
  •  Use part of the $181,000 2010/11 budget surplus to minimize any increase
  • Use more money from the reserve fund. (The roll-over budget proposes using $100,000 from the reserve fund.)
  • Ask teachers, administration and staff to agree to a wage freeze.
  • Increase teacher, administration and staff health-care contributions to match other state workers.

Discussion continues
The workshop portion of the evening complete, questions about the process and board action continued. Joyce Blum cited recent statements from Haldane Superintendent Mark Villanti that a less than 1 percent increase was anticipated. “Why can’t we do that?” she asked. Colucci responded that the GUFS board is considering all the variables, including the roll-over budget, a contingency budget and the possibility of the 2 percent property tax cap (proposed by Governor Cuomo in the current budget). “The board is thinking about [the impact of] $482,000 in cuts” she said, “and talking about what cuts would make up [that amount}.” Betsy Calhoun made it sound simple, suggesting the board should cut staff. Calhoun also asked “how last year’s ‘tight’ budget developed extra money?” Colucci replied that “It’s a plan” and not something set in stone. She elaborated, saying that some budget lines are under-spent and others over-spent; students move into the district and students move out and that no one can predict these matters. “This year” she said, “it resulted in a surplus . . . but it is not an ‘exact science.'”
Responding to questions posed during the first budget workshop, Colucci said that the property tax cap, if passed, would not take effect until the 2012/13 school year. She pointed out that the “cap” can be overridden, but that it would require a super-majority (60 percent) of voters. Colucci reminded the audience that the board has not yet discussed any detailed action “pending workshop results.” Colucci said that the preliminary budget will be posted on the school website shortly, but that the line-by-line budget required further board discussion before it will be posted. The workshop packets and summaries of each workshop will also be posted.

Behind The Story

Type: News

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Mell is a freelance journalist and former editor at The Current.