It was billed as the Harrison Central School District’s budget work session No. 1.
And, to be sure, it delivered a full measure of mandate discussion, and talk of exemptions, assessments and levies.
But even as school officials previewed the tough road to a cap-compliant budget Wednesday, some parents clearly considered classroom security their priceless priority. And the administration, for its part, shared that concern.
Only two members of the public spoke, both of them parents of Purchase Elementary School students, but on a night ostensibly devoted to future budget matters, their thoughts remained resolutely on police protection and other safeguards against a Newtown-type tragedy.
“The safety of our children is the most important thing,” said Jodi Kessler, who expressed disappointment with the lack of a more-robust police presence on school grounds. “I understand that our town, for whatever reason, can’t afford to put in officers to help us out.”
Robert H. Baker told the board, “I think in terms of protecting the children, it would still be better to have a fully trained armed officer at each school. I’m only one citizen, but I’m willing to pay my extra share of taxes to do that."
Superintendent Louis N. Wool sought to assure parents, the small audience at the Louis M. Klein Middle School as well as tape-delay viewers at home. “The four elementary schools are going to see a very intensive increase in police presence,” he said. Still, Wool pointed out, routinely posting one person in one spot “actually is not the most effective way to assure the safety of kids.”
He said that Harrison Police Department officers “have walked every square inch of these buildings with us.” Wool said that for security reasons he could not describe in detail Police Chief Anthony Marraccini’s protection scheme. Nevertheless, he said, it is “a very complex plan that will do, I think, a great deal to enhance the [security] envelope.”
Wool insisted that “the single most important thing for us was, and is, the reinstatement [last month] of the SRO [school resources officer, a policeman assigned not only to patrol the school but to forge a relationship with the students]. Because the best safety and security is prevention.”
The way to create a safe environment, he said, “is for everybody to tell what they see. Tell it to the police, tell it to the school district . . . [and] call child protective services when that’s appropriate.
On a night meant for budget discussion, Wool cited Harrison’s finite resources. “The school district is not capable of manning a police department,” he said. “We already expend in excess of a million dollars a year on security and we’re in the process of expanding that.”
Wool spoke extemporaneously on security. Robert Salierno, the district’s assistant superintendent for business, addressed spending challenges with a PowerPoint presentation.
A superintendent’s budget has yet to be drafted, Wool said, as number crunchers were still putting the final touches Wednesday on a proposed spending plan for next year. So, in kicking off a series of 2013-14 budget discussions, Salierno addressed a number of hurdles, some already familiar, imposed by the state’s two-year-old tax cap.
That cap limits annual growth of property taxes levied by school districts and other local governments. Though called a 2 percent cap—or the rate of inflation, if that’s less—the true number is set by the state comptroller, based on a complex calculation of factors, including local property values and spending exemptions.
In his PowerPoint presentation, Salierno brushed aside some of those exemptions as illusory, noting, for example, that while increases in teacher and staff retirement costs can be taken, the exemption is limited to the amount above a 2 percent hike.
At the same time, he pointed out, a limited number of spending categories—separate teacher and staff retirement accounts, special education and health insurance—consume a major chunk of most any school treasury in the state, increasing next year by a combined $3.45 million.
“Essentially, the forces driving up the budget this year are coming from these four lines,” Salierno said, “and two of them are completely out of our control.”