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Debate Continues Over Scarsdale School Budget

SCARSDALE, N.Y. – Transparency was the word Monday night when the Scarsdale Board of Education met in front of about 30 people at its regular twice-monthly business meeting.

As board members made their opening comments, the meeting quickly became a continuation of the ongoing discussion of the 2012-2013 school district budget. While board member Lewis Leone Jr. questioned whether building a surplus into the budget – asking taxpayers for money they know they don't need to spend – is really transparent, several board members, including Suzanne Seiden, disagreed. Seiden commented on the process of putting together the 2012-2013 budget proposal, beginning last fall when it was thought the district was looking at $8 million worth of cuts if it was to get under the new 2 percent tax levy cap imposed by the state. Changes in the way the cap is computed, changes in revenues and expenditures and a decision to transfer money from a growing budget surplus put the budget below the cap, Seiden said, but warned that may not be the case every year.

Gayle Hutcher, vice president of the Parent Teacher Council, urged the school board to continue its practice of putting together budgets based on what is best for the students rather than trying to get under the cap. "It is obviously wise to be fiscally responsible at all times," she said, "but we hope the community understands that, in order to maintain educational excellence we may not be able to fall under the cap each year and that this year should not be viewed as precedent for the future."

Hutcher also urged the board to examine its decision to reduce the surplus, warning that the district should be sure to maintain flexibility to deal with "unanticipated costs and/or events while sustaining the highest standards of education in each of our schools."

Resident Robert Berg, however, said that while the board technically complied with the cap, the tax hike required to finance the $141.6 million budget will still be 3.81 percent.

Berg said there are two particularly disturbing items in the capital budget – the Internet café and the possible expansion of the fitness center. Berg said he had problems paying $650,000 for students "sipping lattes and watching YouTube videos before heading off to spin class."

Spieler and McGill explained that the name "Internet café" is misleading. McGill pointed out that, with technology and collaborative work becoming a greater part of the district's education program each year, the library has become overcrowded and more space is needed for students to work. Also, cafeteria overcrowding is a problem and the so-called Internet café addresses those problems, he said.

"It's not a student lounge," said Superintendent Michael McGill.

The room, to be created in the former auto shop space if the budget is approved, would be used for overflow seating for lunch, the board said, and food and beverages will be available. The room will also have wireless Internet capabilities and will be accessible for the students throughout the day.

In response to a question during an earlier meeting with SHS parents, Spieler said there is also money in the budget to make modifications to the cafeteria serving area, which is a bottleneck that causes problems for students trying to get lunch.

"It's a safety issue as well," said acting Co-Principal Fred Goldberg. "It's too crowded. The big thing is to provide more serving space."

McGill and Spieler also addressed the fitness center question, saying the expansion had been put off for years and will benefit every student in the school, including those with special needs.

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