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Rockville Centre's Board of Education questions portions of school district's $120 million budget


Eliminating teaching assistants, cutting the frequency of a foreign language program in Rockville Centre’s elementary schools and using existing resources instead of expanding the district’s guidance department raised concerns from the Board of Education at a budget work session on April 4 at South Side High School.

School administrators and principals gathered to discuss the district’s proposed $120 million spending plan for 2019-20, as Robert Bartels, assistant superintendent for business and personnel, led a presentation outlining various changes and expenses.

The budget is set to be 2.55 percent larger than this year’s spending plan. The tax levy, the amount of revenue the district collects through property taxes, is set to increase by 2.65 percent — the maximum amount allowable under the state’s tax-levy cap, considering capital exemptions. The average assessed value of a Rockville Centre home is expected to decline 4.6 percent, from $422,000 to $403,000, Bartels said, though the district could not yet calculate how much each homeowner would pay in school taxes.

Under discussion was the district’s plan to use existing staff to fulfill a mandate by the State Education Department for elementary school students to have access to a certified or licensed school counselor. Superintendent Dr. William Johnson said the district could meet the requirement with the three existing counselors from South Side Middle School, adding that they could build relationships with the younger students a few years early.

“I don’t want to pretend for one second that it wouldn’t be easier if we just went out and hired,” Johnson said, “but these are not the easiest of times for us to consider that.”

But Board of Education President John O’Shea said he would instead like to see a social worker or counselor added to the district staff to serve as another avenue for students seeking help. Trustee Kelly Barry agreed.

Tara Hackett, the board’s vice president, was also critical of the district’s plan, noting that asking three counselors, with already large caseloads, to cover about 1,600 elementary school students would likely be ineffective.

“I would rather see us build up the foundation around it and put some resources into something that makes this successful, instead of kind of pulling and patching,” Hackett said.

The district is also proposing to cut five teaching assistants from the elementary schools, Bartels said. In addition, seven teaching aides would be cut, including five from Francis F. Wilson Elementary School and two from South Side High School. Bartels noted that Wilson has more aides than some of the district’s other elementary schools.

“Clearly I don’t want to have to lose five teacher aides,” said Jim Duffy, principal at Wilson, noting, however, that he and his staff could come up with “creative solutions” to replace them.

Among the proposed additions to staff include special education teachers and a teacher assistant for South Side High School’s reinstated Pathways program, also known as CORE II, for students with severe learning disabilities.

A plan to slightly reduce the frequency of the Foreign Language in the Elementary School, or FLES, program also sparked some questions from board members. Last year, to help balance its budget, the district recommended cutting back on the program, which gives students an opportunity to learn Spanish, but board members shot down the suggestion. The issue came up again this year, as administrators proposed providing the program twice for 40 minutes during a six-day cycle, rather than its current structure of three times for 30 minutes.

“We’re very proud of the FLES program . . . but there are tough decisions to be made when you need to balance a budget,” said Chris Pellettieri, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. “. . . We have outstanding, incredible teachers that will make adjustments so that we continue to provide great instruction.”

Duffy said that the longer sessions, albeit less frequent, may actually help the flow of the program for the instructors.

“If we decide that this is what we do, we need to leave it alone and stop picking on it every single year,” Trustee Liz Dion said.

Principals also joined the discussion to examine the capital projects needed — and wanted — to improve their school buildings, because the district is still determining which ones the budget would cover. Among the largest to be covered is the replacement of a wall at South Side High School, which would cost the district about $600,000. Last year, the back wall of the building was crumbling and needed emergency repair, and architects subsequently found that other walls must be replaced.

Johnson said that he and other administrators would go back to the drawing board to re-evaluate certain items in the budget that were addressed during the meeting. A preliminary budget hearing is scheduled for April 16, at 7:30 p.m., in South Side High School’s Commons Room.