"The reality is you can't do more with less, only less with less,"These are the words of Jeanne-Claire Cotnoir, president of the Briarcliff Teachers Association. Their community is divided over plans to trim school spending, with passionate sentiments on both sides of the issue. Former school board member Joan Austin voices an opposing view.
"A leaner school system might just be a better one."Per pupil spending is $29,964, but proposed budget cuts will trim that slightly. Plans include teacher layoffs as well as downsized music programs and AP classes.
The teachers union says taxpayers need to increase education spending, but some taxpayers believe that more money does not necessarily lead to better schools.
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11:46 PM, Apr. 16, 2011, Written by Barbara Livingston NackmanBRIARCLIFF MANOR — Budget talks in the Briarcliff school district these days are filled with strife and drama, mirroring what is happening elsewhere in some of Westchester's most prized school districts.
Like Chappaqua, Scarsdale and Byram Hills, Briarcliff schools are highly sought-after.
The district has one of the priciest per pupil costs in the region at $29,964 this year. That's down from $30,765 in 2009-10 and is likely to slide further to $29,245 next year, the district says.
But it hasn't been without some angst.
"We've had a lot of emotional meetings," Board President Janet Marinaccio said at an April 11 meeting with a shaky voice. She is not seeking a second term and urged everyone to act with the "utmost civility and respect for others (since) our children are watching."
Two have already lined up to run for her seat — Mike Valenti and Jennifer Rosen.
The economic downturn, coupled with a broader taxpayer revolt, has many residents screaming for lower costs. The school board has responded with serious reductions some say go too far, others say not far enough. A longtime superintendent retired in June, leaving an interim to hold together the community of 7,328 people.
The Board of Education has proposed a $48.4 million school budget that would lower the tax rate by 0.57 percent in Ossining and 6.94 percent in Mount Pleasant; cut 23 teaching and teacher aide positions; and curb programs, such as sectional music lessons and some Advanced Placement classes.
"It is a perfect storm and everything is coming together," said Lisa Davis, executive director of the Westchester-Putnam School Boards Association. "In Briarcliff you are seeing what is happening in Westchester. Many communities are realizing they can't continue to provide the same high level of education, even if that is what many moved here for. The communities, the taxpayers, can't sustain it."
Interim Superintendent Jerry Cicchelli is trying to help the district get in shape for a new head. Cicchelli said the district has been responsive to change. "Spending less is dramatically new to Briarcliff. They got a taste of it last year but that was after a good number of years of not dealing with those things," he said.
Members of the Briarcliff Teachers Association have said they understand cuts but don't like how drastic they are. Teachers have come to budget meetings wearing their navy blue union shirts and at one meeting, some stood at the school's entrance holding signs that read "EXCESSED" after receiving letters saying they might not have a job next year
"The reality is you can't do more with less, only less with less," said President Jeanne-Claire Cotnoir.
Lisa Tane, a former board member, said cuts are hitting the district's core.
"In just a few years, a board has changed the school district," she said. "It is not kids and education but numbers and dollars."
To Marc London, the budget is shaped by a political agenda and tax revolt sentiment. He and others formed the Briarcliff Citizens for Educational and Fiscal Responsibility, asking for greater collaboration.
Trustee Guy Rotondo, who spent hundreds of hours on budget analysis, said cuts are necessary.
"We have a spending problem (and) other schools are measurably more efficient," he said.
Aaron Stern, a 30-year resident, agreed, noting that declining enrollment calls for staff reductions.
"This would be acting with leadership and fiscal responsibility," he said.
Trustee Sal Maglietta, the only member to vote against the proposed budget, is concerned with "the process and lack of information causing a divided community."
Some want deeper cuts: A huge sign on a Chappaqua Road home with a slash through the words "higher taxes" urges voters to reject the budget
Former board member Joan Austin said pulling back is difficult.
"When the economy was booming, no one wanted to hear about this," she said. "A leaner school system might just be a better one."