The Rockville Centre Board of Education passed the district’s proposed 2019-20 budget, 4-0, on April 16 after a hearing that addressed the board’s previous concerns with the $120 million spending plan. Trustee Susan McNulty was absent during the vote.
The budget is set to be 2.63 percent larger than this year’s spending plan, said Robert Bartels, assistant superintendent for business and personnel, and the tax levy, the amount of revenue the district collects through property taxes, would increase by 2.65 percent. The average assessed value of a Rockville Centre home is expected to decline 4.6 percent, from $422,000 to $403,000, Bartels added, though the district could not yet calculate how much an individual homeowner would pay in school taxes.
Residents will vote on the proposed budget on May 21.
At a budget work session on April 4, board members objected to the district’s plan to use three existing South Side Middle School counselors to fulfill the State Education Department’s requirement that elementary school students have access to guidance services rather than hiring additional staff.
At the hearing, Bartels said the district could increase its state aid projection in the budget by $100,000 to support the salary of a guidance counselor to provide an extra resource for elementary school students.
Schools Superintendent Dr. William Johnson noted that the district looked into whether a social worker or guidance counselor would be best, and decided that the latter could both counsel and create educational plans for students. “There’s going to be a limited amount of time that this person would be able to spend in each of the buildings,” Johnson said, “but it’s more than what we have right now, and I think if we very clearly spell out what the goals will be for that person, we’ll be able to accomplish those goals.”
Dr. Noreen Leahy, assistant superintendent for pupil personnel services and special education, said the counselor would be hands-on with the children, taking on duties from examining data such as absenteeism and deficit areas to helping elementary students with special needs make the transition to the middle school.
The decision to add the counselor to the budget came 12 days after Kimberly McGuigan, the mother of South Side High School sophomore Jamison Novello, who took her own life last month, called on the board to do more to address mental health in the district.
“Additional mental health counseling services of any kind is necessary and welcomed,” said Leahy.
School board Vice President Tara Hackett, who previously said she wanted to see the district build up guidance services rather than “pulling and patching,” agreed, saying, “In these types of times, I think this is a welcome addition.”
Another item that sparked a response from parents and board members on April 4 was the district’s plan to cut the frequency of the Foreign Language at the Elementary School, or FLES, program, which gives students in grades one through five an opportunity to learn conversational Spanish before moving on to more advanced language courses.
Despite some objections from parents and former Board of Education member Mark Masin, the board approved the district’s recommendation to reduce the program from meeting three times for 30 minutes in a six-day cycle to twice for 40 minutes. The change would save the district $50,000.
Options to reduce the number of days that the district offered FLES or delaying the start of the program to third grade were floated last year, but were ultimately shot down by board members, including Masin.
“I don’t think this is a question of $50,000,” said Masin, who retired from the board last year after serving on it for 15 years, during the hearing. “This is a question of do we want to continue FLES and expand it — that’s my personal preference and has been from the beginning — or shrink it to the point where it becomes too enticing just to take it away?”
Jim Duffy, principal of Francis F. Wilson Elementary School, said during the April 4 work session that the longer sessions, though less frequent, could help the flow of the program for the instructors and improve scheduling. Johnson added at the hearing that other principals have asked the district for years to re-evaluate the number of times that regular school instruction is interrupted.
Dr. Chris Pellettieri, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, praised the FLES program, and said he is confident that instructors would be able to continue its effectiveness despite the reduction, which amounts to 10 minutes every six days. He said he would be meeting with the foreign language teachers throughout the next year to ensure the district is meeting its goals of multilingualism for Rockville Centre students and preparing them for language courses in the middle and high schools.
“I do not plan on seeing this at our next budget meeting for 2021,” Trustee Liz Dion said. “We won’t be talking about this. We’re going to leave FLES alone and let’s see how it develops, and we’ll check back in with you, Dr. Pellettieri.”
“I’m going to write that down,” Pellettieri responded with a serious smile. “And it’s being recorded.”