The 2018-2019 proposed budget secures gains in curriculum, instruction, technology, and facilities; protects the fund balance; and improves social emotional supports for students. The budget is proposed in the context of a fiscally challenging environment and increased student needs.
As you analyze the substance and detail in the proposed budget statement, it is important to contextualize the proposed budget in relation to both the last decade as well as recent events. The past ten years have been marked by the great recession, characterized by limited revenues. The result has been a loss of positions and cuts to student supports and academic programs. At the same time, the demographics of the district have shifted, with increases in the proportion of students that qualify for free or reduced price lunch, are English language learners, and/or have special needs.. In addition to serving an increasingly diverse population, this past decade has also seen increased social pressures on young people across our country and in our community, stemming from an uptick in children living in poverty, the pressures of social media, and new concerns regarding safety and security.
Within this increasingly challenging context, the City School District of New Rochelle has thrived, doing more with less despite the fiscal challenges of the past 10 years. The school community rightly boasts of being an accomplished global society, with over 60 countries represented. Graduation rates have increased, as have the proportion of students going to four- year colleges, competitive and highly competitive universities, and/or being the first in their families to graduate from high school or go to college. The points of pride and high end opportunities are numerous, with AP and specialized courses; a myriad of clubs, teams, and activities; and amazing attributes like the newly renovated planetarium or the curated museum located within New Rochelle High School. Most importantly, the track record of our students and alums is outstanding and a source of pride for the entire community.
Still, the effect of the great recession created a number of obstacles culminating in a problematic and structurally unsound 2014-2015 budget. As emphasized by the external auditor, the overuse of fund balance and the failure to budget anything for tax certioraris threatened to leave the district in dire fiscal condition. The total budgeted for capital improvements was a mere $250,000 despite a building conditions survey, itself insufficient and flawed, that identified over $25m in needed remediation to bring the buildings to a minimally satisfactory condition.
During the 2014-2015 school year, the new administration took the challenges of the deteriorating facilities and fiscal mismanagement head on, initiating an Energy Performance Contract and transfer to capital strategy for $12.5m to finance projects that directly addressed some of the health and safety deficiencies in the facilities and instituting a spending freeze that enabled the district to end the year in a positive position despite the structural flaws built into the budget. As a result, heat was restored to cold classrooms; roofs, boilers, doors and windows were replaced; lighting and PA systems were upgraded; the building envelopes were sealed; the district fund balance began to be restored, and the district’s bond rating was changed from a negative outlook to an upgraded rating.
The 2015-2016, 2016-2017 and 2017-2018 school district budgets were the first balanced budgets built since the recession started. Savings in operations, achieved by eliminating redundancies, minimizing previously abused overtime, restructuring facilities management, reallocating technology expenditures, going out to bid for transportation, more efficient filing of claims for reimbursement, divesting garbage pick-up, and other similar measures enabled increases in positions and programs for students. We added needed positions driven by equity concerns, most importantly reading teachers to provide academic interventions in the primary grades to help meet the goal of all students being able to read independently in the content areas by the end of grade three.
Programs and staffing expanded slightly during these three years. Class sizes were maintained. The budget also supported the district’s new theory of action of instructional improvement and enabled the overhaul of reading, writing, mathematics, academic interventions and professional development. Likewise, technology infrastructure and usage went from the dark ages to the cutting edge with dramatically increased bandwidth, expanded wireless connectivity, Chromebook accessibility and the adoption of google classroom. A commitment to equity also led to the launching of cultural competency training and explicit conversations and strategies about dismantling institutional racism. In addition, a $106.5m capital projects bond passed, following the most comprehensive and rigorous building conditions survey ever completed. This was accomplished while improving efficiency, eliminating waste, improving infrastructure and operations. The investments are paying off, and we are seeing increased student learning and improved instruction.
Most recently, in January 2018, a spate of student-on-student violence, including three attacks in 8 days, one of them tragically fatal, captured the attention of the community and threatened to derail the progress being made. The unmet needs of our students and their families were as apparent as ever despite this progress. The mantra to do more with less had clearly run its course. At numerous community meetings and at the district’s annual “budget input session,” parents and community members called for more mental health professionals, counselors, social workers, and psychologists to address the social emotional needs of students and families, and enhanced safety and security infrastructure and practices to protect our staff and students from internal and external threats.
Within this context, this year’s budget proposal seeks to build on the gains made while improving social emotional supports for students and improving safety and security districtwide. As is evident within the budget document and the fiscal environment, this year’s budget is built within the ongoing constraints of the last decade as well as some unfavorable variables particular to this year. It was built in painstaking detail, following a zero-based approach, and asks for a commitment to our children so that the schools and the school district continues to be an asset to the community and a reason that people seek to move here.