The “budget café” has come back to the West Hempstead Union Free School District, and it’s not a new bistro where you can enjoy a late-night cup of coffee and a snack.
Instead, it’s a very important process in solving a very serious problem: closing a budget gap that might well amount to $2.5 million.
“By using the ‘budget café,’ inviting all West Hempstead residents to a meeting and picking their brains for ideas, we get the input that will help close that gap,” West Hempstead Superintendent John Hogan told the Herald last week.
Hogan said that the upcoming school budget, which is due in April, is his “most important challenge” right now, along with student safety and academics.
Despite fixed retirement and pension costs, the state cap on property taxes and the rising cost of health care, Hogan said that he is optimistic, but he understands the reality that vital programs may have to be cut.
He added that the amount the district is mandated to contribute to the teachers’ and employees’ retirement systems is increasing by $1 million and $666,000, respectively. Health insurance costs are up $750,000, and the district’s other contractual obligations are increasing by $625,000.
To add to the district’s financial challenges, he said, it will lose $500,000 in tuition and state funding because only 22 Island Park high school students opted to attend West Hempstead High School this year, more than 30 fewer than last year. Island Park students have the option to attend either West Hempstead High School or Long Beach High School. This year, 47 out of 69 of them opted for Long Beach.
“Our schools are really supported by the community’s tax base, and there is a limit to what they can pay,” Hogan said. “We won’t know what we’re getting from the state until sometime at the end of the month. It’ a very tight schedule, and our next ‘budget café’ meeting is on Jan. 29 at the high school, and we hope we’ll know at that time what we’re going to get from Albany.”
Over the past five years, Hogan said, the district has cut 100 positions, ranging from administration to teachers to coaches to custodians. “There is not much fat left,” he said.
“It’s going to be challenging and interesting,” he added. “At the end of the process, however, we will have a budget.”