BY ADAM LUCENTE
On a freezing Thiells night, the North Rockland School District meeting convened at North Rockland High School. Fitting with the dark and gloomy weather, members of the school board sharply criticized the state’s budget increases for the 2015-2016 school year.
Led by superintendent of schools Ileana Eckert, the meeting covered a variety of additional costs the district will need to pay for in the upcoming school year. The meeting started with a discussion of the tax levy cap from New York State, which is estimated to go up to $140,170,681, an increase of over $2 million, or 1.7 percent. Noting that this is just an estimate, Eckert stated “everything is pretty preliminary at this point…could change between now and march,” later adding that “any additional pilots or bond refunding that we may be able to do could change that number.”
“We still hear a lot about the GAP elimination and what the state has not paid districts across the years,” said Eckert, as she moved on to discuss NYS’ GAP Elimination Adjustment (GEA) program. According to the NYS School Boards Association GEA “has deducted from each district’s state aid allocation an amount known as the (GEA) to help the state fill its revenue shortfall.” She noted that this cost the district over $3 million last year, and $28,393,187 since 2009. It gets worse, as her presentation also pointed out the Campaign for Fiscal Equity’s ruling that the state additionally failed to deliver over $80 million in aid since 2009 to the district.
Increased budget mandates the district will need to pay for include English Language Learner programs, health insurance, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a federal program. The increases also include the Regents Reform Agenda, with a four year expense that is anticipated to be over $3.1 million.
In keeping with previous actions, the state is only to pay for 8% of this cost, leaving the district to carry most of the burden. In positive fiscal news decreases to the Teacher and Employee Retirement System costs will save the district an approximated $3 million.
So what is the district doing to meet these costs? Eckert noted the reduction of district schools from 10 to eight, a 25 percent reduction of staff and changes to the health insurance plan, among other actions.
But there are many programs Eckert said the district refuses to touch at this time, such as AP exams, athletics, and articulation with colleges. In defense of this, she pointed out that the district is witnessing a continued increase in graduation rates and a record number of students on honor rolls and in honor societies.
“Race to the Top should be rephrased ‘race to the fiscal cliff, ’” noted board president Harry LeFevre, once the meeting was opened up to comments, referring to the federal education bill. Such discontent summed up the meeting. The next budget presentation to the Board of Education will be on February 3. The information presented at the meeting is available on nrcsd.org under the Board of Education-BoardDocs tab.
Aside from the budget, the meeting also recognized several of high school students’ accomplishments. Beginning with the national anthem, beautifully sung by a middle school choir, the superintendent recognized the girls volleyball team for their county championship, as well as the cheerleading squad’s bid to compete at the national championship in Dallas, Texas.
AP Scholars were also honored, as was Morgan DiCarlo, a past graduate and current Stony Brook University student who was the only undergrad selected to give a TED talk at her school. Her talk, which discussed the need for more women in engineering, was played for the audience and followed by a standing ovation. Finally, high school teacher David Johnson introduced the Heroes and Cool Kids Program, a mentoring program which has been sending upperclassmen to elementary classrooms.
With marvelous student accomplishments on one hand and fiscal distress on the other, it was a bittersweet night at the NRCSD Board of Education meeting.