NSCSD Board of Education hosts community conversation about 2021-2022 budget

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By Sarah Gayden and Fran Havard

On Monday, March 15, the North Salem Central School District Board of Education hosted a ‘community conversation’ to discuss the proposed budget for the 2021-2022 school year. An invitation to the meeting had been posted within the notifications section of the NSCSD app, but had not been widely shared with the North Salem community. 

For the approximately 20 people who were in attendance, much of the conversation centered around two items within the budget: the proposed athletic improvement project, which would include the installation of a new all-weather turf field as well as upgrades to Tompkins field at the MSHS and the lower field at PQ, and a proposal for the district to contract for a communications specialist. 

Carol Herlihy expressed her belief that in order to be successful in presenting the budget to the community, the BoE needed to allow for real-time public comment. The current process requires that comments must be sent to the board via email the day prior to any board meeting. Herlihy said that she learns from hearing other community members’ feedback, and that requiring comments to be submitted via email doesn’t allow for a constructive community dialogue. 

Herlihy also noted that other school districts have figured out how to allow for live public comment and pressed the board to account for why it had not. On Tuesday evening, Brewster Central School District hosted a 'Community Budget Forum' via Zoom.

Board member Brandy Keenan’s proposal to add a communications specialist to serve the district was discussed and debated at length last night. Several community members sought to better understand the need for the role, what specific tasks they would take on and whether the budget earmarked for the position was worthwhile. Many expressed support, including a community member who remarked that it was "woefully needed."

The district’s lack of communication about the meeting itself was held up by some attendees as an example of the ongoing frustration community members feel about how information is shared with the community.

Several board members, including Andrew Brown, Andy Pelosi and Paul Giamundo, expressed their support for the communications specialist role. Brown said he was “not comfortable with the numbers” and hoped that they could fund the position for a lower investment, but added that he felt the role was necessary to support Principals Johnson and DiGrandi.

Keenan said the district would need to allocate approximately fifty thousand dollars for the communications specialist position if approved, an amount which represents .1% of the district’s total budget. Keenan emphasized that the role would be responsible for developing a broad communications plan for the district, rather than being about simply building a Facebook page. The district would contract with BOCES for the role on an annual basis.

Community member Marcy Miller acknowledged the need for better communication but challenged the need for a dedicated specialist, suggesting that current staff members should take the initiative to push information out more frequently. Keenan responded that all of the districts she spoke with in the process of researching the role had previously tried having employees do the work themselves, and were unsuccessful.

Board member Paul Giamundo said that he believes the benefits of hiring a communications specialist outweigh the costs. Giamundo noted that communication issues have been a problem for the entire 16 years he has served on the board. 

Keenan has been working to find ways to help offset the fifty thousand dollar fee for the role. The MSHS PTO today voted to approve a donation to help fund the position. The PQ PTO will vote Thursday on whether it will also make a donation.

Community member Brian Sable asked for an update on the athletic improvement project, which last year neared approval to be added to the budget vote but was tabled due to COVID. BoE president Deb D’Agostino responded that the environmental assessments are complete and that the district has asked for a professional team to validate the costs. The cost for the project currently is approximately $6.9 million dollars, for which the district would secure a bond to finance the project over an extended term.  The incurred debt would be timed for when another bond is being paid off, essentially swapping old debt for new debt.

Miller asked Barbara Briganti, Asst. Superintendent for Business Administration, whether the district was able to quantify cost savings as a result of having  far fewer students in district buildings throughout the 2020-2021 school year. Briganti answered that there is no single line item that can reflect any savings, and added that the district had to spend roughly five hundred thousand dollars to purchase supplies and equipment necessary due to COVID. She added that any savings would be directed into the district's fund balance.  

On Wednesday, March 17, the BoE will host another meeting at 7:30PM, at which the plans for the athletic improvement project will be detailed in full.

A copy of the proposed NSCSD 2021-2022 budget can be accessed here.

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