BY CHERYL SLAVIN
At the regular School Board meeting Tuesday night, North Rockland schools Superintendent Ileana Eckert gave a presentation highlighting both the budgetary issues the district is facing as well as the educational successes the schools have achieved. It could have been referred to as a “state of the district” address, similar to “state of town” addresses given by town supervisors this time of year.
Many North Rockland residents might wonder why their taxes have risen over the past few years even though the state imposed a suggested tax cap. Eckert explained that the tax levy cap is not based on the last year’s tax bill and that it fluctuates from year to year depending on several other factors. After calculating the maximum allowable tax levy under the cap for 2013-2014, the tax levy increase was 3.62 percent. The projected levy for 2014-2015, by comparison, stands at a 1.44 percent increase.
Eckert also explained that state aid has not kept pace with its promised gap elimination. Thus, in order to keep taxes down, the district must budget each year for a designated fund balance. As the budget keeps increasing, the district must use of the fund balance to make up for state aid not received.
Some reasons for increased costs over the years are required contributions to retirement systems that have grown by 51 and 44 percent over the past five years, and the failure of Race to the Top money to cover the full costs of implementing the controversial Common Core curriculum. The district also lost a great deal of revenue due to court ordered reimbursements associated with several sizable tax certiorari cases.
The district’s measures to contain costs the last five years include closing two schools, reducing staff by 20 percent, changing health plans, and obtaining the cooperation of unions to take reductions and contract modifications. The recently approved EXCEL bond will also go a long way towards addressing infrastructure improvements throughout the district at little cost to taxpayers.
Eckert said that regardless of budget constraints, the district still maintains a high quality of education, providing academic choice and rigorous instruction to all its students. Highlighting her point, North Rockland principal Michael Gill presented a College Board certificate designating North Rockland as one of only 477 high schools nationwide to achieve the Board’s AP Honor Roll. Certificates were also presented to the school’s 2012-2013 AP student honorees.
Success as high school seniors begins with success in the lower grades, Eckert pointed out before introducing a presentation from the K-3 classes. Students from Thiells and Stony Point Elementary Schools shared their love and enjoyment of some of their extr-curricular activities: school store, safety patrol, and especially recycling.
The Board also viewed a video of the West Haverstraw Elementary Chorus. As the students and teachers made clear, whatever financial challenges North Rockland faces, the district still provides full art, music, athletics and AP programs, the high school graduation rate continues to climb, and the students continue to achieve academic excellence while building strong self-esteem, civic awareness and leadership skills.