For fiscal year 2015-16, Herricks Superintendent John Bierwirth and the Herricks Board of Education share a common goal: more teachers, smaller classes.
Bierwirth’s recently issued budget recommendation puts a premium on hiring teachers to reduce class sizes, which board President Jim Gounaris said is also tops on the board’s agenda.
“The board’s priority first and foremost is to reduce class sizes for students,” Gounaris said. “It was always about class sizes.”
Bierwirth’s memo, which represents administrators’ recommendations to the Board of Education, suggests the district could afford to add 15 total teachers spread between the elementary, middle and high schools and reinstate elementary school class size caps that were suspended four years ago.
The Board of Education is ultimately responsible for drawing up the budget that voters decide in May, but Gounaris said that historically the board accepts the “vast majority” of the superintendent’s recommendations, with occasional modifications based on community input or new data.
In addition to adding teachers, Gounaris said he also supports the superintendent’s proposals to invest in technology, rebuild the transportation fleet and create a capital project reserve, which would require voter approval separately from the budget.
“We think it’s a good idea,” Gounaris said of the reserve in particular.
Overall, the memo projects 2015-16 to be a second-straight year of strong growth for Herricks after a restricting tax cap, ballooning pension contributions and the financial downturn forced the district to eliminate nearly 100 positions.
“Last year we took a baby step forward,” Gounaris said. “But this year’s presentation, if accepted as is or with some slight modifications, represents a giant step forward.”
The biggest boon for the district is a projected 3 percent drop in employer pension contributions, which represents likely savings in excess of $2 million dollars.
“That sort of change is dramatic,” Gounaris said. “It makes us wonderfully more financially available to return some of the programs that we’ve had, return some of the staff members we’ve had and lower class sizes – it’s huge.”
Gounaris said he believed the memo’s financial forecast through fiscal year 2018-19 to be “realistic” and “prudent.” The memo itself said its projections were “conservative.”
“We didn’t want to think we were going to have more money,” Gounaris said.
Though the district seems on the rebound, Gounaris said it is important to avoid adding too much too quickly.
“We took a very methodical approach over the last few years in regards with the cuts, and we’re taking a methodical approach to restore programs and services,” he said. “If we bring something back, our intention is to bring them back to stay.”
Gounaris added that the strong forecast for the upcoming fiscal year makes it a good time for one-time expenditures.
Herricks Union Free School District has about 3,900 students and comprises five schools: Center Street, Denton Avenue, Searingtown, Herricks Middle School and Herricks High School.
The board’s next budget meetings will be Feb. 26 and March 12. A copy of the superintendent’s budget memo is available on the district’s website.