Letter to the Editor-On Briarcliff School Budget

Dear Briarcliff School District Residents,

As many other community members have expressed, I too would like to see a line item budget that details actual expenditures to the budget for 2012-2013. I acknowledge that spending for the 2012-2013 year is not completed yet; however, it is clear that the majority of the expenditures are for contractually set salaries. Therefore, it should be a relatively simple process to estimate the balance for the remainder of the fiscal budget year.

I would like to understand the numbers from the details–not a summary. Summary budget information, by definition, must be derived from details. Therefore, it is not possible that there is not a detailed working line-by-line budget to be shared with the community being asked to vote on such a  budget. I’m perplexed that it has not yet been made available.

Prior to Briarcliff, I lived in the Tarrytown School District. Budget information was available in March. Intense work sessions for the community were scheduled after distribution of the initial, proposed budget. You were given the information to understand, and help form, decisions. You may not have liked the results but at least you had information and transparency.

Transparency is a word I have heard used frequently at the Briarcliff budget meetings. The only thing transparent to me is the lack of transparency. And not just with the budget area. The seemingly capricious, and unexplained, firing of Neil Miller is also totally lacking in transparency. I’m relatively new to this district. I didn’t know Mr. Miller but he seemed extremely competent with admirable credentials. I fail to understand how bad he could have been for this district to dismiss him and incur severance costs around $150,000 (?) just months before asking the community to vote on raising taxes and breaking through the tax cap. That severance money is a significant part of the amount that causes the overage above the tax cap – but we are not given any explanation of why this community needed to incur that cost and raise our taxes. The hubris of this action is startling in its total disregard for the community and what is being asked of it.

Mr. Wasserman is correct in his analysis that the allocated fund balance is a key determinant of how much money will we need in the budget. Since figures aren’t being released as to actual expenditures we are being told that there will be only $125,000 left in this allocated fund balance. Is this the right number? Is Mr. Wasserman’s number of $1.5M correct? Is it somewhere in between? We can’t know because we’re not being given actual cost figures that can be compared to what was budgeted for the 2012-2013 year. Simply, this is like allocating an amount of money, say $10,000 for a home improvement project. When the project is complete you realize you spent less, say $8,000. You have $2,000 left over for your next project. This is why I am asking for the actual/projected 2012-2013 expenditures. I’d like to know if we’re spending less, equal or more than was budgeted for this current school year.

I moved here, in large part, for the school district almost two years ago. I have been thrilled with the nurturing environment my son has been provided by Todd and the wonderful teachers he has had since joining the District. I moved here knowing the taxes were higher than neighboring communities such as Chappaqua. When we were house hunting, a comparably priced house in Chappaqua had lower taxes, but Briarcliff had lowered taxes two years in a row. I moved here thinking taxes had been brought under control and headed in the right direction without sacrificing the quality of the educational experience. As every homeowner knows, school quality enhances home values, but it’s a delicate balance with property taxes. Property taxes higher than neighboring communities will push down home values – good schools or not. In a year with continued declining enrollment I find it troubling that we cannot achieve a tax compliant budget. What happens when the empty nesters sell their homes to families with children and our enrollment goes up? What kind of tax increases would we be looking at if we had increasing enrollment?

If I was now being asked to increase my taxes to continue the educational quality of the schools, to improve programs, content and I was given the proper information to make that decision I would not feel compelled to write this email. I would vote for that budget every time. Instead I’m being told that we have to cut a few teachers, fire the majority of teaching assistants we just hired last year, re-tool some enrichment programs (which were not broken), bust the tax cap and I can’t have any budget details or an explanation on the Superintendent situation. My vote to this second set of circumstances is an emphatic NO and it makes me question my decision to move to Briarcliff Manor (and to stay). ©

Jim Occhiogrosso

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