School budget, ed board seat up for election

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Voters on Tuesday will decide whether to approve the Manhasset School District’s $87.9 million budget for the 2014-15 school year and to re-elect Board of Education Trustee Patricia Aitken or install challenger Marirose Merola to a two-year term.

The budget – a 2.04 percent spending increase from 2013-14 that calls for a 1.84 percent property tax levy increase – reflects the restoration of class sections and extracurricular activities cut during last year’s budget process, which required two community-wide votes to pass, trustees said. 

The district’s 2013-14 budget initially failed to earn the 60 percent supermajority vote required because its tax levy increase exceeded the state-mandated 2 percent cap, and passed after the board cut a series of programs and activities, increased elementary class sizes and fired teachers and district employees.

Trustees said a combination of the district’s new collective-bargaining agreements, the adoption of the state’s pension-stabilization program and low health-care contribution liabilities have allowed the board to place a renewed focus on the “4 A’s” – academics, the arts, athletics and activities – in the next school year.

Part of the district’s budget revision process last year was to remove elementary class sections for its second, third and fourth grades as well as its more challenging secondary-level courses and electives.

Manhasset Superintendent of Schools Charles Cardillo had said many of those class sections would be restored for 2014-15 and class sizes would be brought back within district guidelines.  

The district plans to add sections of computer programming, advanced placement-level psychology, criminal and civil law and reading and writing technology.

In addition, two additional sections of creative writing, speech and debate and architectural drawing are also planned at the secondary level, Cardillo said.

The district also plans to make previously part-time social worker positions at Munsey Park Elementary School and Manhasset Middle School full-time, Cardillo said.

Shelter Rock Elementary School and Manhasset High School each have full-time social worker positions.

School officials predict the district’s enrollment will increase from 3,290 currently to 3,355 in 2014-15 and 3,429 by 2017-18.

Elementary class sizes increased last year to as many as 26 students per section, while sections of second and third grade were cut at both Munsey Park and Shelter Rock elementary schools. 

Though the district still plans for five sections of second grade at Munsey Park Elementary School in 2014-15, it has set four sections at 22 students apiece and 23 in the fifth. The district’s guideline for second grade classes is 22 students.

In addition, the district plans to add a sixth section of first grade at Munsey Park, putting 19 students each in two of the classes while putting 20 apiece in the other four. The district’s guideline for first grade classes is 22 students.

At Shelter Rock Elementary School, the district has proposed adding a section of second and third grade classes.

Three second grade classes would have 22 students, while the other two would each have 21. Three third grade classes would have 21 students apiece, while the fifth would have 20.

Cardillo said the district has been able to restore assistant and varsity coaches fired due to the 2013-14 budget and reinstitute the elementary school’s music program, which had been cut out of the 2013-14 budget but was brought back with community fundraising.

After eliminating the Parent/Child Home program, which provides in-home educational opportunities to low-income households, the district received $50,000 in funding from state Sen. Jack Martins’ office to bring back the program for 2013-14. Officials said they hope to continue receiving the aid to fund the program.

Martins also announced last month that the Manhasset School District would receive $3.7 million in state aid as part of new state budget. 

The district has budgeted $21,420,344 toward its teachers and employees retirement systems, an $813,000 increase from the $20,607,323 approved last year.

But by opting into the state’s pension-stabilization program, which allows the district to pay a fixed rate for a number of years and defer payments on the difference, trustees said Manhasset this year avoided an $8.4 million increase in contributions to its teacher and employee pension funds.

Manhasset budgeted $650,000 toward meeting those future payments, which officials said explains why its employees’ retirement system has increased from $907,072 to $964,335 and its teachers’ retirement system has increased from $5,694,479 to $6,153,726.

Health insurance premiums, a figure that district officials can increase tremendously from year to year, only went up 1.6 percent for 2014-15. The district budgeted $6.075 million to meet the increase.

Trustees said Manhasset’s new collective-bargaining agreements would also factor into the next year’s savings, as deals with its three unions have placed tight restrictions on increases to salaries and the district’s health and benefit contributions.

Since Aitken and Merola were the only candidates to return petitions, they will be the only names on the ballot on May 20, Michelen said. Candidates may still be elected to the board on a write-in vote. 

Merola, a 14-year Manhasset resident and mother of two, has said her diverse professional skills would benefit the board as it evaluates its curriculum in the next two years.

In the last decade, Merola has co-chaired both the pro-school budget organization PASS Manhasset as well as the Citizens Education Committee, which serves as a liaison between the board of education and the community on academic issues.

“I think I can bring a new, fresh face with some fresh ideas to the community,” Merola said. “Between my education background and my financial background, I think I’d be a valued addition.”

Merola, a former information technology specialist, suggested during a candidates forum on April 30 that Manhasset should develop better working relationships with neighboring school districts to find unique ways of cutting costs and generating revenues in the tax-cap era.

“I don’t necessarily believe in consolidation, but we need to look at other ways to collaborate in living under the tax cap,” Merola said.

When asked about a potential conflict of interest arising in serving as a school board member in Manhasset but as a teacher in another district, Merola said she would be able to provide a comparative analysis of how each district operates.

She also balked at the suggestion that she would favor the economic interests of Manhasset’s teacher’s union over those of taxpayers during future contract negotiations. 

“At the end of the day, I’m a taxpayer too,” she said.

Aitken, a Manhasset resident of 16 years whose three children have graduated from the Manhasset School District, previously served on the Citizens Advisory Committee for Finance, an organization that serves as a liaison between the board of education and the community as it pertains to the district’s budget.

She also served on the board through the implementation of the state’s tax cap legislation in 2011 as well as the revisions to the 2013-14 budget.

Aitken told the Manhasset Times in late March that if re-elected, she would continue to approach her work with the board in a fiscally responsible manner that she said is crucial in the tax-cap era.

“It has gotten to be more of a challenge, as the fiscal aspects are different and budgets have tightened up,” Aitken has said. “We’re limited as to what we can spend and people’s pocketbooks are tight, but from a big-picture standpoint you want to serve the kids. That hasn’t changed. You just have a limited world in which to do that.”

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