EducationThe Examiner

Chappaqua Board of Ed Lowers Tax Levy, But Budget Still Exceeds Cap as District Intends to Add 3 SROs

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Chappaqua school officials found more than $1.1 million in savings and additional revenue to reduce its 2024-25 tax levy but will still need 60 percent approval from voters because the district exceeds the tax cap.

The Board of Education last week approved a revised $141.8 million budget for next school year that includes three additional school resource officers (SRO), which became a flash point for some in the community during budget discussions. Each of the district’s six schools will have its own SRO starting next year should the budget be approved by the public on May 21.

Despite the 2.99 percent tax levy increase, about $1.4 million over the $2.1 million maximum allowable levy increase, Assistant Superintendent for Business Josh Culwell-Block said that the increase of about 3 percent is in line with most of Chappaqua’s neighboring districts. A zero growth factor for the upcoming year is a key variable in holding the district’s maximum allowable levy to a 1.81 percent hike, even though the region’s Consumer Price Index is in excess of 3 percent, he said.

It is the first time in the tax cap era that the Chappaqua School District will ask its residents to approve a spending plan over the cap.

“I think that this is a reasonable increase for our community in response to the concerns for both the parents in our community and the teachers in our community, and these are two very important groups for us to respond to,” Board of Education President Hilary Grasso said. “Compared to many pre-tax cap budgets, this is a very modest increase, and compared to every post-tax cap budget this is still very much in line and very reasonable.”

Surveys conducted by the district, the most recent about a year-and-a-half ago, found that having more school resource officers and keeping elementary school class size low were two of the community’s top priorities. Three elementary school teachers will be added to maintain lower class size in the primary grades. There would be an average of between 18 and 21 students per section in each grade at all three elementary schools.

Debate on hiring additional SROs ramped up over the past month with the revelation that the officer assigned to the district’s three elementary schools, Joseph Carbone, was arrested in early February on charges relating to domestic violence. Carbone resigned from the New Castle Police Department on Mar. 19.

Last week, several speakers voiced their displeasure at the administration and Board of Education for spending money on the additional officers, while others were distressed about the district’s failure to communicate with the public why Carbone was suddenly no longer the elementary school SRO.

Those opposed to the additional SROs once again argued that the $1.1 million cost for equipping each school with an officer is excessive as research has shown that having armed officers does little to make schools safer.

Parent Alicia Spillman said students are far more likely to die from suicide with mental health issues so prevalent today. In the past six years, three district students have taken their own lives; therefore, the district should focus its resources to help staff recognize warning signs.

“SROs are not research and evidenced based,” Spillman said. “I believe it would be negligent for the school district to put guns into our schools.”

Another parent, Andreas Baum, said he had “very grave concerns” that the district did not address the reason for the SRO being replaced even as the information regarding Carbone’s arrest became public.

He called on the district to have greater influence in the vetting and hiring of all future SROs.

“The Board of Ed must commit to transparency, to accountability, and let’s take appropriate resources to understand what went wrong and come up with a plan for how we can prevent it in the future,” Baum said.

Superintendent of Schools Dr. Christine Ackerman said that she takes the community’s concerns seriously about and said the district intends to have a say in the hiring of the new SROs.

Beret Flom, another parent, urged fellow residents to vote against the budget. School officials should address any concerns by consulting the district’s security audit that was guided by experts rather than react on emotion.

“Vote no for an over-tax-cap budget to spend more than a million dollars on armed guards in our schools when there’s not evidence supporting that, there’s not evidence, and there’s actual evidence in our district that it’s creating an unnecessary risk,” Flom said.

Sentiment in online groups, including those comprised of empty-nesters and seniors, is also opposing the budget. Roughly 40 to 50 percent of district voters do not have children in the schools.

Most of the board was supportive of the move to present a budget that exceeds the tax cap, opting to see if the community backs a budget that includes items supported by most of those who responded to the district’s survey. Board member Matthew Auerbach, an advocate of expanding SROs when he ran for his seat last year, said since the February arrest of the elementary school officer he has had “no sleep-filled nights.”

Despite the unsettling turn of events, Auerbach said he believed the children are safer with the officers than without them.

“I will (vote to) approve this budget because I believe the benefits of having an SRO in the building outweighs the risk,” he said.

Board Vice President Cailee Hwang dissented with her colleagues and voted against the budget because she said that enough wasn’t done to reduce spending, although she complimented the administration for the cuts that were made.

Hwang said the board should advocate equally for children’s academic needs and the taxpayers.

“Therefore, with a focus on both students and taxpayers, and after much, much careful consideration, I will be voting nay to adopt this budget,” she said.

Budget reductions totaling $503,539 are a result of salary line reductions based on having additional retirements ($128,174); eliminating the vacant director of elementary education position ($204,970); not filling a vacant high school art teacher position ($87,000); lower benefits because of the eliminated positions ($43,435); and a $20,000 savings for BOCES and special education costs, Culwell-Block said.

Additional revenues of just over $639,000 come from nearly $150,000 more in state aid than anticipated as the state restored Foundation Aid in its just-approved Fiscal Year 2024-25 budget, plus an extra 3 percent, an additional $60,000 in projected interest returns on fund balance and use of another $430,000 in fund balance.

The projected tax rate will rise 3.4 percent for the overwhelming majority of the district that lives in New Castle. For those in the Mount Pleasant portion of the district, taxes are expected to fall 2.31 percent. The difference in tax rates between towns is a result of the state’s equalization rate.

If the budget does not receive 60 percent approval, the district can put up a revised plan on June 18 or provide a contingency budget, which would have no levy increase from the current year. If a second vote fails, the district would have to go to a contingency plan.

Voting will take place on Tuesday, May 21 from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. at Horace Greeley High School.


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