*Correction to Open Topics Forum responses sent earlier today, April 9*
The original "Enrollment" category response contained a typing error. We apologize and have revised the content in this report accordingly. Please note that the tax cap does NOT permit exemptions based on increasing enrollment. The revised sentence reads, "Enrollment growth significantly impacts the budget, and is one of the District's greatest challenges, since the tax cap calculation does not permit exemption of the per pupil cost of educating those additional students."
Responses to Public Hearing
Open Topics Forum
After meeting with Rye residents to listen to their thoughts regarding a variety of District matters, members of the Board of Education shared summaries of their groups' discussions with the community. A number of common items of focus and related suggestions were conveyed.
Superintendent of Schools Dr. Frank Alvarez has categorized the following responses based on those major themes:
Several people asked about test proctoring and what the procedures would be for upcoming assessments. Dr. Alvarez has since sent letters to parents to address this topic, explaining that all elementary and middle school classrooms are being proctored by a teacher other than the regular classroom teacher. An additional proctor will also be present in each testing situation. Accommodations for English Language Learners, Special Education and 504 students will be guided by each student's Individualized Learning Plan (IEP). The District is confident that this will provide an appropriate and successful testing environment.
Some brought up the issue of the testing irregularity matter from last year. The District has complied fully with State policies and procedures since this issue was first raised. Two settlements were reached earlier this year and the District continues to seek resolution of the others.
Members of the public requested an update on the advocacy efforts of the District and inquired as to whether progress has been made and if there are other opportunities to explore.
In November, Dr. Alvarez, several Board of Education members, and teachers attended a public forum hosted by New York State Education Commissioner John King. Rye was one of many Westchester school districts that testified before the Commissioner to ask that the State slow down Common Core implementation, consider the extraordinary costs of APPR and other unfunded mandates to local districts, and engage school communities in the development of new State policies and programs.
The District hosted its own information and advocacy forum on February 12, titled, "The High Cost of Reform: How New York State Public Education Reform Affects Rye's Students, Parents and District Educationally & Fiscally." Panelists included State Senator George Latimer and Assemblyman Steve Otis; teachers Jennifer Fall, Dayna Reist, and Suzanne Short; and Board President Laura Slack. Those interested can view the meeting online as well as the Q&A portion.
Three sample advocacy letters regarding testing, student data privacy, and the need for enrollment and pension exemptions from the tax cap are available on www.ryeschools.org for anyone who would like to use them to advocate on these issues. Contact information for public officials is also provided. The District estimates that approximately 1,000 letters and emails have already been sent (although it is impossible to track the exact number) and appreciates the support from all who have helped spread the word. Anyone interested in becoming involved may visit the "Advocacy for Mandate Relief" link on the website www.ryeschools.org for more information. Many thanks to parents Mindy Grigg and Jenn Boyle who organized the local forum.
In February, the State adopted changes to the roll-out of the Common Core. One adjustment is that the graduating class of 2022, which is the current fourth grade, will be the first required to pass English and Mathematics Regents Exams. Previously it was the class of 2017 that was designated for this change. More recently, the State announced the cancellation of its contract with the inBloom data collection program, which was a concern expressed at the forum and in one of the District's advocacy letters. Apparently, the State is listening to the thousands who have come out to ask for a slowed-down rollout of educational reform efforts. District leaders will continue to express their concerns and make their voices heard, and urge you to do the same.
Open Topics Forum participants also asked about the status of the Educational Foundation. Foundation trustees have filed for a 501(C)3 status with the IRS. Due to the very long wait time for approval at the IRS, this review has taken longer than expected; however, the District anticipates a positive outcome within the next few months.
The public had many questions and comments on the developing budget for 2014-15, which are listed and addressed as follows:
Q. Is there any preference for the different budget combinations that have been discussed?
A. In February, the Superintendent presented four possible options for a recommended budget. They have since been narrowed to two: (1) a tax cap compliant budget that would depend upon the use of reserves and the possible implementation of a utility tax or (2) an override budget. The Board and Administration continue to examine the two options and thoroughly vet all components of the recommended budget. A final decision will be made on April 22, the budget adoption date.
Q. How are funds distributed among the three elementary schools for renovations? How are facilities projects at the elementary schools determined?
A. Each school's annual budget is based on enrollment. Funds for facilities projects are distributed based on prioritized need and available funding. Annual building inspections are performed to determine where renovations and other projects are necessary. The Facilities Committee works with the Assistant Superintendent for Business and the Facilities Manager to establish those priorities.
Q. How will programs be maintained with constrained revenues?
A. Maintaining programs for students is always a priority. The multiple challenges of unfunded State mandates, the tax cap revenue restriction, and increasing enrollment have compelled the Board and Administration to be creative in finding ways to raise revenue and make efficiencies that do not impact programs. Whether a utility tax is imposed or an override is sought this year, programs will be maintained under the proposed budget. Eventually, the community may decide overriding the tax cap is necessary in order to maintain the high quality academic experience that drives so many people to choose to move to Rye.
Q. How can the public get more information on the budget drivers, such as Employee Retirement System and Teachers Retirement System?
A. Costs to the District for pension contributions continue to rise well above the allowable tax cap rate. The current pension exemption from the tax cap calculation is inadequate to meet the actual growth in the cost center. There are currently two bills before the State legislature to exempt more of these pension costs from the tax cap calculation. The impacts and costs of these pension systems as they directly relate to the Rye City School District are outlined in the District's budget presentations, available online at www.ryeschools.org, and will be further explained in the budget mailing. More information about TRS (Teachers' Retirement System) can be attained by visiting www.nystrs.org, and for ERS (Employees' Retirement System), www.osc.state.ny.us/retire.
Q. Is the District looking at 5-year projections in the budget?
A. Yes, the District examines 5-year projections, but with a realization that funding streams and legislative initiatives can drastically change the forecast. The budget projection information is confidential as the majority of it is used in employee negotiations.
Q. Where are we with a decision regarding the utility tax?
A. The Board and Administration have NOT made a decision yet regarding the utility tax, although they have researched the facts associated with the implementation of this tax and determined that it would provide the District with an estimated revenue of approximately $900,000 in the first year and approximately $1,200,000 in each of the subsequent years. At the Board of Education meeting held on April 8, the Board approved a resolution to hold a public hearing in late May regarding the utility tax. Please be aware that no decision about the utility tax has been made as of yet, but in order to keep this open as an option, the establishment of a public meeting was necessary.
Q. Have we considered different sources of revenue such as product placement through corporate sponsorships?
A. In the current financial environment, the District is always willing to learn about potential revenue options that may work well. There are ongoing efforts within the District to find creative ways to raise revenue.
Q. Is it time to start campaigning on what an override will take?
A. An override may be inevitable in the future and it will be critically important to engage and inform the public on the issues around school funding and the financial needs of the District. A communications plan will be developed to better explain what an override would mean for Rye.
Q. Are we cutting too much?
A. The Superintendent's Proposed Budget does not call for cuts. The District has made staffing reductions over the past several years, captured efficiencies with scheduling, and continues to look for areas of potential cost-savings, but there is a point at which no further cuts can be made without impacting programs. The Superintendent believes District is at that place now and his proposed budget reflects that.
Q. Where can a member of the public get the line-by-line budget?
A. The budget book DRAFT is available in the District Office at 411 Theodore Fremd Avenue, Suite 100S. The final version will be available after the proposed budget is adopted on April 22.
Q. Why are non-instructional staff costs increasing at higher rates than instructional staff?
A. Non-instructional staff costs include hourly rates paid to individuals who are employed on an as-needed basis; for example, substitute teachers. Instructional staff cost amounts noted in the budget apply solely to the salaries of faculty members. Both of these rates will vary year-to-year based on the current enrollment and needs of the District.
Q. Can class sizes in the elementary schools be increased to reduce costs?
A. It is possible to increase class sizes at the elementary level, but at this time the District has decided to do its best to stay within its class size guidelines of 18-22 children per elementary class with the goal of an average of 20. These guidelines are not hard and fast but a goal that is aimed for each year. Occasionally, individual classes may fall outside the parameters. This year, due to physical space constraints on the High School/Middle School campus, some class sizes have gone up marginally.
Q. What is the long-term plan to meet State mandates which do not come with commensurate funding?
A. The District has been involved in a number of advocacy efforts for mandate reform, and will continue those efforts while urging members of the community to continue their efforts as well. Hopefully the State will listen and eventually provide some relief from these high costs. The Board and Administration have chosen to deploy reserves to mitigate the tax impact of these mandates. That is not a sustainable strategy over time and ultimately, an override may become necessary in order to meet the costs of mandates without drastic cuts to the District's highly-valued educational program.
Some members of the public expressed the opinion that it would be difficult to gain approval for an override at this time, and that more communication is needed.
It was suggested that information on the budget be simplified to avoid jargon such as TRS, ERS, FTEs (Full Time Equivalent), and that the District exercise transparency about cost reduction. More information on salary increases was requested, as were cost center numbers based on projected and actual enrollments separated by grade levels.
Response: Look for the budget newsletter, which will be mailed to homes at least six business days prior to the May 20 vote. This publication will provide a simple explanation of the details of the budget and explain the terminology that is used. The line-by-line budget book will be available in the District Office following the proposed budget adoption on April 22. This document will include the detailed cost center charts, salaries, budget history, etc.
The enormous growth in enrollment the District has experienced and the impact it has on the budget was a topic raised by several of the groups. Residents asked how reliable the enrollment projections are, how enrollment impacts the budget, whether staffing is adequate for increasing enrollments and if anything can be done to tighten the procedures for new residents to help the District receive more reliable projection data. A suggestion was made to work with the zoning board to avoid increases due to new building.
Response: The District has a firm grasp on the numbers of students in grades 1 - 12 based on current enrollment. Kindergarten is always more difficult to estimate, though from Bishop Associates, enrollment projections are obtained with in and out-migration formulas factored in. The District looks at its current year's enrollment as well as projections when developing the budget. Enrollment growth significantly impacts the budget, and is one of the District's greatest challenges, since the tax cap calculation does not permit exemption of the per pupil cost of educating those additional students.
The District closely monitors class sizes in order to ensure that staffing is appropriate, and staff members are added when necessary. The Superintendent's Recommended 2014-15 Budget includes the addition of four teachers at the High School due to an additional 144 students realized over a two-year period, as well as a custodian and security guard in light of the additional 27,000 square feet of classroom space in the science addition. The Administration carefully assesses staffing over the summer and in September, and is always prepared to make adjustments based on enrollment changes and other factors. If it is found that additional staff members are needed elsewhere in the District, the matter will be addressed. The District has made the City of Rye aware of its concerns around growing enrollment.
A variety of questions were asked regarding curriculum and academics. They are listed and addressed as follows:
Q. Regarding the designations that the District has received, such as the Blue Ribbon Distinction: how often are these recognitions presented, when are they renewed, and how are they maintained?A. Blue Ribbon Distinctions are awarded after a lengthy application and review process based on a number of criteria. All three elementary schools as well as Rye Middle School have earned this honor in the past. Additionally, Rye High School has received many annual designations on national lists produced by the Washington Post, U.S. News and World Report, and Newsweek.
Q. What is the District's technology plan? Do we have a long-term plan? Is the technology in the schools adequate? What is being taught in technology?
A. The District has a Technology Plan, and various features of it were shared at the February 11 Board of Education Meeting. The full presentation is available on the District's website. In summary, there has been an increased use of mobile technology and collaboration tools to support curriculum at the K-2 level to enhance student learning while also allowing teachers to monitor student progress. The Nearpod presentation tool and Raz-Kids interactive library are examples of these resources. Grades 3-5 have been utilizing Prezi, a visual and interactive presentation and storytelling application, Wikis, which provide writing opportunities that can be shared with wider audiences in Wikispaces classrooms, and Kidblog, which offers a safe and private classroom blogging space. At the Middle School level, Google Apps is used as a productivity suite that offers a way for students and teachers to collaborate and communicate on documents, research, and other assignments. It is supported by Hapara, a teacher dashboard that provides an overview of student activity across various apps and tools. Google Apps is also utilized at the High School, where a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) initiative was introduced, enabling students to use their own mobile devices in the classrooms.
In looking ahead, the State testing mandates may require additional investments in hardware to ensure the District's ability to comply if tests are only available electronically. Over time, aging desktops will be replaced, possibly with laptops and iPad carts. It is also possible that the BYOD initiative will be expanded to the Middle School.
Q. Does elementary FLES need to start at grades 1, 2, or even 3? Would it be better to save it for fourth or fifth grade, or Middle School, and spend more time on the core subjects?
A. The District is not planning on making any changes to the current FLES program. Teachers and Administrators have found it to be highly effective in enhancing learning, helping students to develop skills beyond basic foreign language knowledge. FLES does not take away from the focus on other studies; in fact, it incorporates a variety of subject areas as well as technology features, and has received remarkable reviews from teachers in preparing students for their middle school and high school language experiences. The District is very pleased with the progress and outcome of this component of the educational program.
Q. Is the Common Core implementation happening too quickly? How often are teachers of their classrooms out for training? Can the District opt out of Common Core?
A. It is widely believed that the required Common Core roll-out is moving too quickly, and advocacy efforts have focused partially on slowing this down. It is not possible for the District to opt out of the Common Core. Professional development is necessary in order to ensure students' success, and the topics in which teachers have been trained this year translate directly into the classroom. Teachers are not out for extensive time periods due to training, and the District does all that it can to conduct training on Superintendent's Conference Days, when schools are closed for students.
Q. Will the District consider full day kindergarten at some point given the high academic demands?
A. The District is not considering full day kindergarten at this time. It is possible that it will be discussed in future years, especially if Pre-K becomes mandatory for public school districts in New York State. The Board and Administration have worked diligently to develop a budget that maintains the programs that are already in place, and will keep the community apprised of any new developments.
In addition to the questions noted above, comments were made in support of the High School Writing Mentor Program. Additionally, the Rye Nature Center provided information on its programs, inviting administrators and Board Members to observe lessons.
Members of the public shared questions and concerns focusing on special education. Participants asked if the AIS and special services are adequate, and whether there is enough special education staffing at Osborn and Midland. Parents also asked if special education staff members' schedules could be organized in a way that would specify times that they may plan meetings, allowing them more time to meet with children consistently. Some concerns were expressed regarding the special education budget and whether it is sufficient to fulfill the District's obligation to IEP students, legal compliance for special education classes, and programs outside of the classrooms for special education students.
Response: The District's special education services and staffing are consistently reviewed and adjusted as needed to fulfill the needs of the student population. The District is always seeking opportunities to maximize staff time with students, and has performed internal audits to carefully examine schedules. Staff planning for next year is currently in process. The District has revised some procedures to better ensure that makeup classes are held as appropriate in the event of a teacher's absence. Regarding programs outside the classroom, special education students have access to all extracurricular programs that the schools offer.
Q. How does the administration and board of education work? How does the school organization work together?
A. The Superintendent maintains the day-to-day operations of the School District. The Board of Education is an elected volunteer body that has oversight and governance responsibilities. Members of the Central Administration work together, as well as with other staff members and Board of Education Members. Board Meetings are held with the purpose of conducting the legally-required business of the District and providing members of the Administration and Board the opportunities to discuss various topics in greater depth.
Q. Have the District and Board had conversations with the City of Rye regarding reassessment?
A. Yes, this has been explored in the past. It was recently discussed during a joint meeting between the Rye City School District and City of Rye, which took place on April 5.
Q. Do parents have the right to request teacher conferences?
A. Yes. Parent teacher conference days are included in the school year calendar, and additional meetings can always be arranged by request. Administrators believe that teachers have always accommodated these requests, and if any parents have trouble arranging conferences, they are asked to contact the Superintendent's Office.
Q. Some Middle School sports programs were cut last year - now, with larger classes coming in, will the District look to reinstating them in the future?
A. The District is committed to providing a wide array of opportunities for all students. It will continue to review such matters as Middle School sports based on student interest and the overall fiscal impact to the District.