Port BOE candidates talk budget, solutions to financial pressures

Port BOE candidates talk budget, solutions to financial pressures
(In clockwise order, starting from the top left corner) Trustee Adam Block, Trustee Nanette Melkonian, President Adam Smith, Joe Delerme, Michael Bitalvo, Sandra Alvarez, Teodora Choolfaian, Beth Weisburd. (Photos courtesy of the candidates)

The Port Washington School District budget was a focal point at the Board of Education forum Thursday night where candidates talked about the financial pressures the district faces and offered solutions to combat what they foresee as a continuing issue.

Port Washington residents will head to the polls Tuesday to vote on the district’s budget of $194.5 million, which includes a 4.55% tax increase that exceeds the tax cap by 1.16%. This requires a 60% approval vote to pass.

“This year, under the pressure of inflation and stagnant state aid, we have delivered a student-centered budget with a focus on excellence that invests in our future,” Board President Adam Smith said.

Also on the ballot are three seats on the Board of Education.

Smith, Trustee Adam Block and Trustee Nanette Melkonian are all running to be re-elected for another three-year term.

Challenging the three incumbents are Sandra Alvarez, Michael Bitalvo, Teodora Choolfaian, Joseph Delerme and Beth Weisburd.

Block said what differentiates Port from other school districts facing the same financial stressors is its use of reserves. He said Port opted not to use high amounts of reserve funds as other districts have.

Smith said with the rollover budget from last year there was a $5 million gap in funding. To bridge this, he said $2 million in cuts were made, $1 million of reserves used and $2 million in taxes increased to balance the budget and maintain the district’s standard.

Melkonian said the district also does not have the same level of reserves compared to other districts, which she attributed to establishing tax increases in prior years within the caps.

Smith said four other districts on Long Island are proposing to pierce the cap, but all in a range of about 9%-13%. He said this puts Port Washington closer to the districts staying within the cap.

One resident asked whether taxes would be raised by $200, which Alvarez clarified would be a $200 tax increase based on the property assessment of a $1.1 million home.

“We can discuss the numbers, the differences between the numbers, but really more important than – that discussion is going to happen – next week the budget [vote] is going to happen on Tuesday and we need to pass the budget,” Alvarez said.

Weisburd said she finds it concerning the district’s budget has risen by about $20 million over the past two years. She said during her six years on the board, the budget has risen by $18 million.

She said this is in tandem with her calculations that the district has underspent its budgets by about $7.8 million on average over the past three years.

“I am here because I didn’t see the kind of scrutiny in this budget season, and in quite frankly the last two, that I’ve seen before,” Weisburd said. “The numbers, these high numbers, this is not something new. It’s not something we’ve never seen before.”

Delerme said a solution to financial issues is mobilizing as a community to advocate for more foundation aid from the state. He said if elected he would be active in advocating for state funding.

“If we’re concerned about this conversation now, next year is going to be an even more drastic gap based on the projections that we are getting,” Delerme said.

Choolfaian said unions are capable of becoming “too powerful” and the district needs stronger negotiations to keep budgets in check.

Bitalvo said the financial situation can be blamed on Assistant Superintendent of Business Kathleen Manuel, adding that it is the board’s responsibility to hire and fire administration.

Multiple candidates stressed the importance of still supporting the budget, including Bitalvo and Weisburd who said a budget failure would make a worse situation.

One resident asked about the candidates’ opinions on funding special education, citing a diminishment of its funding recently.

Choolfaian read from a budget document she said she requested via FOIL from the school, citing areas where spending was diminished in the past year for special education services.

Smith said special education spending is complex and it is not the board’s job to divvy up the money in the budget. He said the administration presents budget recommendations and the Pupil and Personnel Department makes recommendations which the board then reviews.

Weisburd, who served on the board for six years, disagreed with Smith. She said trustees can question the budget and ensure funding is adequate for the programs.

All candidates expressed an interest in supporting special education students and funding associated programs, which Alvarez said should also set students up for success after graduation.

The incumbent board members cited examples of investing in special education, including the integrated co-teaching program, conducting an audit for pupil and personnel services, starting the Twilight program, and cutting the rate of non-graduates by half in about two years.

Another resident asked the candidates their stance on how the district can further support LGBTQ+ students.

Alvarez, who identified herself as a member of the queer community, said protecting LGBTQ+ students is of importance to her and has contributed to the district-wide equity team. Going forward more needs to be done, she said, specifically in promoting mental health and hiring more social workers and guidance counselors.

Choolfaian said that while things can always be better, she finds the current campus climate already welcoming and accepting of all students. She said it is incumbent upon individuals to become engaged in their community to combat all forms of hate.

Block disagreed with Choolfaian, saying that it is the community’s, not students’, responsibility to foster a welcoming environment for everyone. He said ways the district can be better is through professional development to recognize students in need amid mistreatment and continuing to hire staff and administrators who foster a welcoming environment.

Delerme said this can also be achieved through community partnerships, which Smith provided an example of with local LGBTQ+ group Be The Rainbow hosting lessons for students.

“It’s great to hear that we’ve started to scratch the surface in terms of bringing in some of our community partners that can serve as school-based community partners,” Delerme said. “And there’s others as well to bring education, to bring awareness, to bring the dialogue so that it is a safe and inclusive community.”

Community members can vote for three trustees, the budget and a proposition to use capital reserve funds from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Tuesday in the Weber Middle School All Purpose Room.

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