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Mental health in focus in East Meadow school budget

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East Meadow School District officials have included the hiring of three new social workers and an additional guidance counselor in their proposed 2020-21 budget.

The East Meadow district has been releasing the spending plan in sections at a series of public meetings that began Jan. 8. 

One of the biggest increases in next year’s budget is for curriculum and instruction, which is projected to rise by a little more than $132,000, to $11.25 million, a 1.19 percent increase over the current budget.

If the budget passes, the three social workers would alternate among the district’s four elementary schools. “We’ve heard the need for increased mental health resources, and it’s definitely a priority,” said David Casamento, the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction.

Superintendent Kenneth Card said that social workers would be assigned to the schools that needed them most, rather than employing a specific number at each building.

“We have to make this shift so we could de-termine where it’s equitable, as opposed to equal,” Card said. Equal hiring would provide each school with the same re-sources, but equitable hiring will distribute resources based on schools’ needs.

The district also plans to hire a guidance counselor to rotate among the three buildings on a weekly basis. Card added that district officials hoped to make guidance offices more welcoming to students by presenting them as mental health and wellness centers. “We want students to feel more comfortable seeking help if they need it,” he said.

The district is also hiring additional art and music teachers in its elementary schools. “We’ve always valued the arts in East Meadow,” Casamento said. 

The board will be adopting the proposal at a public meeting on April 1, which will still go on despite the closure of schools because of the coronavirus (see story, Page 5).

The proposed budget totals $214.29 million, an increase of 2.71 percent. The 2020-21 tax levy — the total amount the district must collect in taxes to meet expenses — is projected to rise by 2.5 percent, to just under $142.85 million, according to district officials.

A tax-levy increase greater than 2.56, or $3.48 million, would exceed the state tax levy cap and require a supermajority of at least 60 percent of voters to pass — which the district has done only once, with the 2015-16 budget, when it implemented its full-day kindergarten program. “And I hope that’s the only time we do it,” said Patrick Pizzo, the district’s assistant superintendent for business and finance.

District-wide infrastructure improvements are part of an ongoing plan that takes into account input from school principals. “Everybody wants air conditioning. Everybody wants new technology,” Pizzo said. “But you need to have the backbone to support it . . . with the proper infrastructure.”

Capital improvements at elementary schools include increasing the size of the parking lot at Bowling Green, renovating the bathrooms at Barnum Woods, replacing classroom door locks at McVey, and resurfacing and painting the basketball court at Parkway.

Resurfacing of the tennis court at Woodland Middle School is also planned. W.T. Clarke middle and high school, whose buildings are connected, are to have a gymnasium repainted. And East Meadow High School is to have a new carpet in its library.

Residents will vote on the final spending plan on Tuesday, May 19, along with Proposition Two, which is an addendum to a $58.8 million joint school and library bond that voters passed in March 2017.

The district has been renovating its fields as part of the bond, and its current plan is to install a new $600,000 grass football field at East Meadow High. Based on community feedback, however, officials added an option to install synthetic turf fields, totaling $2.58 million, at the high school and on another field at Clarke.