All parents of children in the Commack School District -- and especially the parents of young children -- have something that should make them very afraid. For many, maybe even all of us, we moved to Commack for one primary reason: the schools. Specifically, we moved here for a school district that is consistently one of the best of Long Island. Yet, despite the fact that our tax levy increases have been historically low and that the School District continues to add programming, restore cuts and continues to perform at a high level, there is a near and present threat to the quality of our children’s education. And unfortunately, that danger is someone that currently sits on the Commack Board of Education.
I attended the first Budget Workshop at the High School Thursday night and was pleased to learn of the continued excellence of our students, the enhancements to their educational and extracurricular programs that were included in next year’s proposed budget and the fact that the current proposed tax levy increase was 1.96%, under the tax cap, and which could possibly be lower depending on whether the expected level of state aid increases. This is after the tax levy increase last year was 1.585% (which was lower than the increase approved by the voters), and 2.6% the year before. These are historically low increases.
Board of Education
Trustee James Tampellini, however, was not impressed. He continues to
criticize the District for the level of unplanned contingency funds that are
built into each year’s budget. Despite the fact that this practice has
been in place for years -- each year openly disclosed in the District’s audit
report -- he continues to make the baseless claim that the practice is somehow
“illegal.” He continues to ignore the fact that the District’s level of
emergency funds has allowed it keep the proposed tax levy increases consistent
and low, as opposed to requiring sporadic spiked increases. He also ignores that it has allowed the
District to improve its bond rating and save on interest costs; money that directly
led to a decrease in the proposed tax levy last year. Even worse, Mr.
Tampellini refuses to learn from the past.
One needs to look no
further than our neighbor to the north, Kings Park, to see the direct negative
effect that reducing the District’s reserves and contingency funds can have on
a School District. Friday’s Newsday reported that Kings Park, one of 52
districts in New York State that was labeled as “susceptible to financial stress”
has an over $2 million shortfall in its budget that will likely have to be
bridged by program cuts (the article is available here: http://www.newsday.com/long-island/education/kings-park-school-district-may-cut-staff-programs-to-close-budget-gap-1.7386178). That article directly noted:
"One of the reasons we are susceptible to fiscal stress is because
we are applying reserves and fund balance to the budget," [Kings Park
Superintendent Susan] Agruso said. "We're running out of reserves. At our
current rate of use, we have about three years left." As a result,
Kings Park is considering “cutting or consolidating school clubs, eliminating
middle school sports and reducing the number of music performing groups… [and]
raising class sizes, eliminating a middle school enrichment program and
reducing kindergarten to half a day….”
Sachem is a district
where ideas such as Tampellini’s took root. Sachem elected a Board that
ran on the same fiscal principles of reducing reserves to save short term tax
funds. After parents got fed up with increased class sizes and program
cuts, they voted out that Board, and the new members were tasked with refunding
those reserves. Had they obtained the required 60% vote last year, Sachem
would have pierced the tax cap two years in a row.
When pressed on the
issue at the Budget Workshop, specifically on what to do if the District
reduced its contingency in a one-time give back and then ran into unanticipated
expenses, Mr. Tampellini flippantly suggested that the District would either
have to raise taxes or make programming cuts. Only it’s not that easy to
simply “raise taxes” in the tax cap era. Moreover, one can only guess
which of these two options a Board Trustee that ran for the first time after
his kids were out of the District would make. His position seems to
be all about reducing taxes for those families that have taken what they need
out of our schools and no longer need them. Forget about paying it
forward, they want to pay as little as possible now.
Now Mr. Tampellini will
try to sell his bills of goods by claiming that the School District secretly
pads its budget to “hide” its unplanned contingency funds (despite the fact
that the yearly audit report is posted to the School District’s website).
He’ll try to tell you that it’s an illegal end run around a law that
limits the District’s reserve fund balance (something that the District’s
actual auditor, someone whose job it is to make sure that the District is in
financial compliance, clearly does not agree with). And he’ll tell you,
as he did at the Budget Workshop, that he’s been in contact with the State
Comptroller’s office. Yet somehow this “scandal” hasn't been on the front
page of Newsday with pictures of State auditors descending on the District.
Perhaps it’s just a sound fiscal policy that has led to consistency in
the District’s low tax levy increases, financial savings in the form of reduced
interest, and increases in programming and activities for our already
high-performing District. Perhaps the Boogeyman is the not around the
corner, but is the very person that is warning us about the Boogeyman.
Every time I attend a meeting, I am amazed at what the students in our District are accomplishing. They are taking subjects and competing in academic competitions in areas that I never heard of when I went to college, let alone high school. As a parent of a 1st grader and another child that will be in kindergarten in two years, I want those opportunities to exist for them.
For my own personal
reasons, I am not running for School Board again this year, so this article is
not a campaign post. It is my sincere attempt to raise awareness among
the parents in our District to this threat to our children’s education. I
know the three or four people (or all one person for all I know) that usually
post here will continue to post their insulting and attacking comments, and I
am not going to dignify those with any type of response. To everyone
else, I implore you to attend the Board meetings and Budget Workshops.
Let the Board know -- the entire Board -- that you do not agree with
sacrificing the financial well being of our District for a one-time tax credit
to benefit those people that have already taken what they need from our schools
Press the candidates for this year’s Trustee election for their position
on this all-important issue. Get informed, stay informed and make
yourself heard. That is the only way to defeat the Boogeyman and protect
our children’s education.