The unique set-up of the Thursday, March 18 Board of Education meeting for the Public Schools of the Tarrytowns gave the community a chance to dig into the meat of the important issues on the table and come up with some out-of-the-box ideas to help balance the budget.
Hundreds of citizens packed John Paulding’s multi-purpose room, ready to hash out the details and find ways to keep taxes as low as possible without resorting to some of the drastic measures being proposed – specifically closing Tappan Hill and increasing elementary class size.
Superintendent Howard Smith began the evening by reminding everyone of the reasoning that led to his budget proposal. “What we’ve tried to do is look at the merits of what we’re doing,” he said, “and cut as deeply as we could without cutting a program or service.” He then divided the audience into groups of six or seven. He asked each group to discuss and debate three topics in an effort to find a consensus. (1) Should the District close Tappan Hill School? (2) Should class sizes be increased and the number of Teacher Assistants be decreased as proposed? (3) If further cuts were to be made, what were some areas that people felt comfortable putting up on the “sacrificial altar”?
Members of the administration roamed among the groups, answering questions and providing clarification if necessary. For many, it was a chance to discuss the issues with people who had a different viewpoint than their own, which was exactly what Dr. Smith had hoped. “[We wanted to] give everybody a chance to engage in conversation,” he said. “Expose them to different ways of thinking that they might not necessarily get through their circle of friends or neighbors.”
The random makeup of the groupings created many spirited conversations throughout the room, as people argued the merits of the proposals, defended their favored programs, and learned that unfortunate truth that it can be quite difficult to get any seven people to agree on issues of this magnitude. Through it all, however, the discussions were guided by the questions provided on the form, a fact which some felt took away from the opportunity to search for inventive and original solutions to the budgetary problems facing the District.
Even the questions themselves bothered some in the audience. For example, the third question suggested cutting some-after school Clubs, of which there are currently 58. But without knowing what clubs actually exist, it was difficult to make an informed decision. Likewise another item on the list was to make a cut in the number of sports teams offered, currently 49, without delving into the specifics of which sports to cut.
After the groups handed in their forms, the floor was opened for general discussion, and community members came forth in a lively discussion, with recommendations, thoughts, and concerns. Suggestions for cuts from the audience included closing the Dual-Language Program, getting rid of all bus service in the district, having parents volunteer as lunch and bus monitors, and potentially saving $200,000 by eliminating the District Assistant Superintendent. What became obvious was that everyone in the room had a different idea on how to save money, and each idea had its supporters and detractors.
Near the end of the general discussion, Dave Bedell of Sleepy Hollow summed up the frustration of many in the room. “We’re squeezing blood from a stone, and there won’t be any blood left next year or the year after next.” He asked if there was any way to renegotiate the district’s contracts, which Dr. Smith reminded was simply not possible. Dr. Smith explained that the teachers had given quite a lot in the last round of bargaining, to the point where teachers at the top end of the pay scale agreed to only a 1% raise. Bedell noted that while these top-earning teachers were getting any kind of raise, 27 other, lower-earning, professionals were getting laid off. He then tied it back to the issue at hand. “It’s tough to say we’re going to close Tappan Hill so the higher end [of the pay scale] can get a raise.”
After the meeting, some of the parents expressed frustration at the turn of events. “I’m disappointed,” said Gayle Millstein. “This is not what I thought this was going to be about today. I thought we were going to go through the budget and say what we agree with, what we don’t; what we should live with, what we shouldn’t live with.”
In the end, however, what was apparent was that while there was a reluctance to close Tappan Hill, the protestations were not uniform, and there were entire groups who had agreed that the economic reasoning for the closure was sound. Dr. Smith felt that the meeting had given everyone a chance to really see just how difficult the decision-making process can be. “I think perhaps the public comments that came out after this were perhaps a little more measured, people were a little bit more sobered by… going through the process.”
Everything else aside, the emotional heart of this meeting, and one of the main reasons so many in the community have become engaged in the process, lies in the fate of Tappan Hill. Gina Vercesi, a strong supporter of the isolated jewel of a building, was pessimistic about the eventual chances of keeping the school open. “I feel like we’re done,” she said. “That’s how I felt the whole time. We’re done. It’s over. They’re going to close the school.”
Her words proved prophetic two days later during the Board of Education’s Saturday morning budget work session, when the Board signaled their intent to include the closure of Tappan Hill in the budget which they will be considering for adoption at the next general meeting on Thursday, April 15 at 8pm.