The School Budget, Scorecard Night, and the Voter: Untangling the Mass, One Budget Line at a Time

School budget season is complex and there are many layers that may impact how one chooses to vote on May 18. Simply understanding what a yes vote means is tricky business for the community and understanding how one’s yes vote correlates to meaningful educational expenses has been the business of the North Salem Board of Education (BOE) for the past four board meetings.

On April 7, 2021 at 7:30 p.m., the BOE will host Scorecard Night, the penultimate budget event before the budget is adopted. This is the night when trustees get a say on the annual budget that will be put before taxpayers. It is a relic from a time when the Board actually prepared the budget. In this scenario, the Board prepared the budget and the administrators were able to put items on the scorecard. That changed about 10 or 15 years ago when the school started to prepare the budget. Now, it is the BOE that can issue the half dozen or so items that can be either added or removed.

Throughout this budget process, Board members have asked questions about the value of the budget proposals from different presenting groups. Presenting groups included: Central Administration, Curriculum, Athletics, Field Improvement Project, Special Education, Technology, and Buildings/Grounds/Transportation. During these various presentations, administration has presented and Board members have asked their questions to deepen their understanding about the educational value of increases in spending.

Last year’s Scorecard Night was cancelled because of the uncertainty around COVID, but 2019’s had some fireworks as Andy Pelosi and Katherine Daniels debated over what role the BOE should play in preparing a final budget. In 2019, Pelosi proposed engineering studies and tarps for the fields and the debate became whether Pelosi could even propose this so late in the game. Katherine Daniels, who was a Board member in 2019 remarked: “there is a process that needs to be respected and that way we get thoughtful decisions. We don’t get something that may be a waste of $10,000.” There ended up being a roll call vote for $10K.. It carried 6:1 with Daniels saying that she wouldn’t vote in favor because of the way that Pelosi raised it.

The debate led to dialogue about what role the Board plays when public commitment to public education collides with what the public is willing to invest in public education. Board Member Paul Giaumundi remarked at the 2019 Scorecard meeting, “if you want to be a realistic board member, you have to take a stance.” Some Board members view Scorecard Night as that place to take a stance.

Board President Deb D'Agostino explained that there is usually little controversy on Scorecard Night. Board members tend to know in advance what a Board member will bring to the table. While D'Agostino didn’t recall ever putting something up for removal from a proposed budget herself, she explained that the Board tries to be responsive to the voters. If she hears from a lot of folks on a particular issue, the Board will notify administration before Scorecard Night.

The Board primarily exists to serve the interests of the public: “we have an obligation to be a good shepherd of public funds” says D’Agostino, who has served on the Board for 12 years. D'Agostino explained that the budget process is important because “the board members’ primary role is to be the watchdog for the expenditure of tax dollars, while still ensuring that our students get an appropriate education.” The complexity of this dynamic--taxpayer dollars funding education as a public good--was reflected in the conversation in which Dr. VanDerStuyf, director of Pupil Personnel Services at North Salem, advocated for an increase in Special Education funding citing the importance of addressing student needs when Board member Giaumundo questioned the $1.5 million dollar increase over three years. There have been many discussions in these board meetings that often reflect this tension between public investment in education and value.

Both the Athletic Field Improvement Project, colloquially referred to as a vote on the turf and the communications specialist role seem to polarize community opinion, but neither of these impact the 2021 budget in any meaningful way. The turf field will be funded by a bond and the communications specialist’s value has minimal impact on the final budget. In the March 10 meeting, school superintendent Dr. Freeston remarked that the greatest increase in expenses comes from salaries and benefits, with the third-greatest increase coming from special education. During the March 24 board meeting, VanDerStuyf presented a 7.1% increase in the Special Education budget.

D'Agostino remarked that in the past, budgets reflected pet projects and weren’t as formulaic as they are now. Board members have an independent vote, and majority rules. This becomes part of the final budget, in which the town votes on whether or not the BOE can be authorized to levy taxes to meet the budget needs. It solidifies for the town what choices are being made for the sake of public education. Prior to the vote, on May 5, community members are invited to comment on the adopted budget during a board meeting.

The total budget for North Salem is $45,732,304. The proposed levy is 1.27%. Freeston, during the March 10 board meeting explained why he couldn’t say what a yes vote would mean for your tax dollars: “We are four towns in two counties, each with a different way of conducting assessment.” Should the budget continue as it is currently being presented, one of the propositions on the ballot will state: “$45,732,304 shall be appropriated to meet the estimated expenditures for school purposes for the school year 2021-2022 and that the Board of Education be authorized to levy taxes to meet the same.” You are voting on the levy, the increase.

Last year, voters voted yes to a budget of almost $45 million with a 2.25% levy. Voting records indicate that out of the 5,000 ballots, 1,977 were returned. Of those 1,977, 1,385 voted yes to the levy and that was during the pandemic, with so much uncertainty about our future direction and without the same formality to the budget season. However, the budget passed with just 27% of all eligible voters voting yes.

In May, voters will decide not only on candidates, with two seats open, but also whether the BOE will be authorized to levy taxes by saying yes to the 1.27%. Voters will also decide on the Athletic Field Improvement Project which will be funded by a $7mil bond paid off over a period of 17 years.

To vote or to become a voter, individuals can register in person or submit an application by contacting Mary Rhuda, the District Clerk, North Salem Central School District, 230 June Road, North Salem, NY 10560, 914-669-5414 x 1011 during normal business hours, up to five (5) days before the vote. For absentee ballots, reach out to the District Clerk in the District Office, 230 June Road, North Salem, NY during normal business hours (8:00 am - 4:00 pm) or by downloading the application. Absentee ballots must be received by the District Clerk by 5:00 pm on the day of the vote/election in order to be counted.

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