The North Salem Board of Education invited the public to a “Community Conversation” about the 2022-2023 budget. Just five community members attended.
On Monday, March 21, the North Salem Central School District Board of Education and district administrators hosted a “Community Conversation” to discuss the proposed $47 million budget for the 2022-2023 school year. Just five community members attended. All were women.
Community conversations are intended to provide opportunities for members of the public to engage in dialogue with Board of Ed members and district administrators. Regular Board of Education meetings have a period for public comment, but those meetings do not allow for direct dialogue between the community and district officials. Monday night’s “Community Conversation” was held in person at the Middle School cafeteria, and was not recorded or made available by Zoom.
While the meeting was intended to give the public the opportunity to ask questions about the budget process and share their input on how funds are allocated, much of the conversation among those who showed up centered around issues not directly related to the proposed budget, including possible later school start times for middle and high school students, stretched resources for student support services and progress on the water filtration system at the middle school/high school.
School start times
One attendee asked whether the district would solicit community input on a later school start time. Superintendent Freeston did not immediately answer the question directly, instead explaining how complicated the logistics were in making a district-wide adjustment and pointing to the work that the School Start Time committee has been doing throughout the school year. The attendee pressed for a direct answer by saying, “so parents won’t be involved?” Freeston tersely responded, “did I say that?” before acknowledging that community input would not be sought. Rather, the final decision on school start times will happen by way of a recommendation from the School Start Time committee to the Board of Ed. The Board of Ed has final approval authority.
Freeston shared that the complexities involved in shifting school start times are vast, and leave the district with few options. “It seemed a lot clearer in meetings one and two than it does in meeting six,” Freeston said. Trustee Brandy Keenan added, “There are so many moving parts. I don’t know if the Board is even going to want to move forward. We are trying to be very careful and deliberate.” The U.S. Senate’s recent vote to establish permanent daylight saving time further complicates things. Freeston said that permanent daylight saving time would be a “game changer potentially for start times everywhere.”
Student support services
Another community member inquired about a perceived lack of support resources and poor communication about the services offered for early elementary students. “I feel like I’m chasing that info,” she said, noting that she had not been given updates on when her child was receiving support and whether they were making sufficient progress. She added that Pequenakonck Elementary School principal Mary Johnson had previously told her that resources are stretched thin. Throughout the year, staff who would have otherwise been responsible for providing support were often being used to cover classes in cases of faculty absences.
The community member also noted that classroom behavior has been an issue at the Kindergarten level, a point that administrators acknowledged to be true. Another parent shared that she had been told by school administrators that the Kindergarten behavior problems were “behaviors we’ve never seen before.”
One parent pressed district administration on Kindergarten academic intervention. “We’re pushing them into grades where we don’t have a budget that’s going to support reading or math intervention,” this parent said. “I’m hoping that we have a strong plan on how to maximize our RTI,” she said, referring to an educational practice that identifies and supports students with learning and behavior needs.
Julio Vazquez, director of instruction and human resources for the district, has been strongly advocating for the addition of instructional coaches for math and english language arts. Those positions have been requested, though not funded, for the past several years. Instructional coaches work solely with teachers to provide support in best instructional practices. Vazquez explained that this role is preferable to having outside consultants who come to the school periodically, “because we have found that that’s not enough.”
When asked for an update on the water filtration project, facilities director John Sieverding said, “right now we feel very confident that this is going to be taken care of,” referring to the system at the Middle School/High School. Sieverding said the district is two to three weeks out from completing what is required. The Westchester county Department of Health requires that the system be tested for two months and that a chemical analysis be conducted before it can be fully activated.
The 2022-2023 budget
A community member challenged administrators to explain how they put money toward specific problems facing the district, such as the rise in behavioral issues among early elementary students. “I don’t get how the problem sees the money,” she said.
Adam VanDerStuyf, assistant superintendent for pupil personnel services at North Salem CSD, responded that budget decisions don’t work in such a clear cut way. “There are some things that you can’t put your finger on a line item and say that’s going to fix the problem,” he said. “That money is really spread out across the general education fund.” VanDerStuyf added that the problems the district is seeing among Kindergarteners, which he characterized as "short term," were ones the district has had to react to as a result of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
VanDerStuyf also spoke briefly about the American Rescue Plan funds that the district has received, which total over $700 thousand dollars. Nearly half of that budget has already been directed toward HVAC and facilities upgrades. VanDerStuyf shared that a significant number of third party vendors have approached the district to propose ways to use the ARP funding. “Imagine how many vendors had the answer to what they thought was our problem,” he said. “We had to sit back and be thoughtful and purposeful about what the long-term use [of funds] would be.” VanDerStuyf said the district is analyzing “other longer term things,” though he didn’t specify what those items would be.
Under federal and state guidelines, school districts are required to seek public comment from parents, teachers and other stakeholders on how to spend their ARP funds. To date, the North Salem CSD has not formally surveyed either parents or the North Salem Teacher’s Association for their input.