Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Thank You!

I want to thank the community for supporting both the budget and my candidacy.  I very much appreciate the confidence shown in me.  The budget passed with 80% of the voters voting yes, the 2nd highest total in Chappaqua in at least 25 years.

Thank you.


Tuesday, May 21, 2013


Complacency is the enemy of victory!

Please go out and vote today!  In a low turnout election, every vote does count.

Voting is from 7:00 am to 9:00 pm today at the Horace Greeley Gymnasium.  Parking available for voters in the second lane close to the gym.  Once at the high school, voting only takes 5:00 minutes or less.  No excuses.  Go vote.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

CCSD Letter to the Town of New Castle Regarding the Chappaqua Crossing Proposed Change in Retail Zoning

On Thursday May 16th the CCSD BoE submitted a letter to the Town of New Castle for inclusion in the Chappaqua Crossing property DSEIS detailing our concerns with the proposed retail zoning change.  Here is a copy of that letter.

Patch Candidate Q&A

The Patch asked the candidates for the school board to respond to several questions.  The Patch has not yet published them, but I expect they will sometime before the election.  Below are the questions and my responses. (This was cut and pasted from an email so apologies for any formatting errors.)

What are the school district's biggest challenges? 

The biggest challenge facing the district is creating a sustainable educational model that is both fiscally prudent and sound as well as adaptive to the changes in how education is designed and delivered in the 21st century.  Our students need to learn to be creative risk takers and critical thinkers not just memorizers of content knowledge.  I think we need to adapt to the rapidly changing technology and learn to use technology for actually improving the educational experience. We need to continue to move towards a sustainable budget model including addressing structural (mandates) and contractual issues.  We also need to find alternative ways to engage our students in their learning process. 

Academically, as always, our biggest challenge is reaching the middle of the bell curve.  We need to find a way to challenge and motivate the students that fall in that huge range that is the middle student.  One way to do that is to allow the students to decide how much to challenge themselves rather than have strict numerical cutoffs.  For example, I believe that a student that wishes to take an AP class at the high school should be given that opportunity to challenge themselves rather than there being a bright line cutoff.  In the event the student is not keeping up at the end of the first quarter, then have that student drop into a non AP section.  Reaching the middle students is essential not only at the high school, but more importantly is reaching out to those students at both the elementary and middle school levels.

I also think a major challenge facing the district is expanding community involvement.  We need to find ways to get more of the residents involved in education whether that is through attending Board Meetings, sending emails to the Board, voting in the election, voting on the budget, helping to fight unfunded mandates or simply being more involved in the different buildings. 

Finally, I think that with natural turnover in our administration team especially at the building principal level, we need to ensure that they have and develop the necessary leadership skills to drive their buildings to both academic and social success.  Leadership is critical to having thriving students all striving to reach their potential.  Our central office administration is actively involved in taking a lead role in support of the new school administrators.

State-mandated employee pension contributions have been a significant driver of higher costs for the district in recent years. What changes, if any, would you like to see to the pension system?  

The State mandated pension plans, Teacher's Retirement System (TRS) and Employee Retirement System (ERS) are Defined Benefit Plans.  The State of New York taxpayers are guaranteeing a market rate of return to the plan.  I would support a change from a Defined Benefit Plan to a Defined Contribution Plan whereby districts know their obligation is simply a straight line function of the number of employees.  The plan itself and the members of the plan would be taking the investment risk, not the taxpayers.

Pragmatically, I would accept a transition period as well as protections for staff employed more than a certain number of years.  Without compensation, I think it is wrong to retroactively change the system to someone who is well on their way to retirement and has relied on the expectations of the current plan. This transition could also include the unionized staff having to make contributions to their own defined benefit plan.  I think it is imperative from a fiscal standpoint that benefits and their associated costs are brought in line with the private sector. Or, let the State of New York take over payments to the pension systems that they mandated.

Do you support repealing the Triborough Amendment to the state's Taylor Law, which preserves terms of expired union contracts until new deals are in place? 

First, it is important to understand what is the Taylor Law and the Triborough Amendment to that Law.  In short, in New York State, the Taylor law prohibits policemen, firemen and teachers from striking. Without the ability to strike, the legislature felt that these groups lost all leverage in negotiations, so they amended the law to protect against cities, municipalities, school districts, etc from unilateral cuts to compensation in the event a contract expired without an agreement on a new contract.  What the amendment says is that in the event of a contract expiring without a new contract being agreed to, that the terms of the old contract would continue.  In theory, that is a reasonable right to exchange.  The groups are prohibited from striking, but the employers would have to live under the terms of the existing contract.  

Where I diverge from this thought process is in the interpretation of what should be continued in the event of no agreement.  To actually repeal the entire Triborough Amendment would be a mistake.  But, I believe it should be modified so that so called "step" increases do not continue in the absence of an agreement.  What I think is fair and appropriate is for the actual compensation to stay exactly as it was at the end of the expired contract.  No unilateral cuts by employers and no automatic step raises to employees.  This change will create a more level playing field in contract negotiations.  The real issue for me behind the Triborough Amendment is automatic step increases. 

Finally, I think it is only fair to point out that locally, in the CCSD, so far, 3 of our 4 bargaining units have agreed to new contracts that give them lower raises than they would have gotten under the Triborough Amendment.  That is, they accepted raises that were less than their natural step increases.  I believe that is a strong show of good faith and an indication that our staff recognizes and appreciates that we are partners whose primary focus is on the students.

What are your thoughts on tenure for teachers and administrators? 

First, tenure is a state mandate.  The concept of tenure is not something we can control locally.  What we do control is the granting of tenure.  In general, with a few exceptions, if a teacher or administrator is to be employed in the district beyond their three year probationary period, then they need to have been granted tenure.  That is a State law, not a locally negotiated provision to our contracts.  The history of tenure was to provide for academic freedom and teaching without the fear of reprisals.  It also protects against arbitrary firings.  However, the system as it is designed limits performance based hirings and firings.  The 3020-a process is so expensive, time consuming and fraught with peril as to make it almost irrelevant.  (See NYC and "rubber rooms"). The system severely limits the district's ability to make personnel decisions based strictly on current work product or merit. 
So, if I were king, I would change the system.  I do believe there needs to be material protections for the staff.  What I would do would be to give staff 5 year contracts.  In the event the district fired a teacher for anything other than enrollment reasons, the balance of the contract would be paid or one month severance pay for every year worked, whichever is greater.  This would give protections to teachers and allow the district to make decisions on hiring based on merit.

The district is facing academic mandates from the state, such as continued administration of a new teacher and principal evaluation system and a shift to what are called common core standards. How do you think the district is doing in responding to these requirements? What else, if anything, would you like to see done?

I believe in local control of public education.  I think the core standards are a knee jerk reaction to outdated data and a misguided attempt by the federal government to create minimal standards that will, in effect, bring the top performing schools down to the core standards when our local expectations are much much higher than theirs.  Essentially, we are forced to waste time and money being in compliance with standards that are below our own.  Similar things could be said about the APPR.  

I believe we as a district do a much better job of evaluating our staff than does the APPR which is 25% mandated to rely on standardized test scores.  So, I think the federal and state government should stay out of local education or at the least provide for exemptions for high performing districts such as ours. 
As to how the district is responding to the requirements, we are making the best of what I think is a bad situation.  The district, in partnership with the CCT and the administrators, has created APPR criteria and measurements that are far and above what the State is suggesting.  We will continue to evaluate personnel with more than checked off boxes and standardized test scores.  Evaluating a teacher's effectiveness is part art and part science.  We need to use both quantifiable measures as well as observation.  In fact, we as a district have had our APPR held up as a model for other districts around the state to emulate.

Most of the district's budget revenue comes from property taxes. Would you support creating new revenue streams for the district? If so, what would you propose? 

Of course I support creating new revenue streams for the district.  Who wouldn't?  I have made some specific proposals at Board meetings.  For example, if our biggest asset is our teachers and our rigorous academic program, with technology advances and districts throughout the New York facing financial pressures, why not sell our classes to other districts?  Through technology, we could easily package our classes, use Skype, etc to deliver first class learning to other districts that cannot afford to offer certain classes.  Another possible revenue source is selling physical district assets.  The Facilities Committee on which I sit is currently exploring the sale of several parcels of district property we deem to be not needed for future use.  In general, I think it is incumbent upon the district to find its own sources of revenue.  However, know that the district is restricted by NY State law from many types of revenue sources including taking any kind of financial risk, using taxpayer assets such as facilities to profit or to rent them to for profit groups.  Any ideas along those lines are restricted. 

I also support continuing and expanding the public-private partnership between the district and such groups as the Chappaqua School Foundation, the Sports Boosters and the Turf Committee.

Currently, Chappaqua Crossing developer Summit/Greenfield has a proposal for the site, which is across the street from Horace Greeley High School, before the New Castle Town Board to rezone the property to allow for 120,000 square feet of retail, including a supermarket of 36,000 to 66,000. Summit/Greenfield has also stated that it could create more tax revenue for the school district. Do you support the plan, oppose it, or are you undecided? What are your concerns, if any, with the proposal as it currently stands?

If you are asking me as a current School Board member and hopefully future School Board member, I neither support nor oppose the retail plan directly.  It is not the role of a School Board member to support or oppose the plan any more than it is the role of a Town Council member to tell us whether or not we should have an SRO in our schools. 

I do have some serious concerns about the plan that, for the most part, mimic the District's submission to the DSEIS.  Mainly, first and foremost, the safety of our students and staff.  Second, I am very concerned about traffic.  Third, I am concerned about the intersection of the first two.  That is, I am concerned that emergency first responders have the ability to respond to any emergency in the district, particularly at the high school in a timely and appropriate manner.  Will the addition of a retail zone and the ensuing increased traffic negatively affect first responders ability to respond to the high school? Fourth,, I am concerned about other general matters such as underclass students parking across the street, non-authorized students leaving the campus, and especially the accuracy of the tax projections.
I think that both the developer and the Town, before proceeding need to clearly outline for the district how the traffic and safety concerns will be addressed.  I also remain concerned about the residential student enrollment versus the residential taxes paid.  To the extent that a market rate dwelling is not taxed as at a fee simple rate, there is concern that the other taxpayers in the district will need to absorb the costs.  I would also like to better understand the tax projections from the retail zone.  What are the assumptions that underlie those projections and could the Town and the developer, as part of a tax certerori settlement on the current outstanding grievances agree to a set tax number going forward for a period of years that will allow the district to make long term revenue plans and assumptions. 

As a resident and School Board member I would hope and expect that our Town representatives clearly detail for New Castle residents the logic and reasoning behind their proposed changes to the zoning code and how they think the benefits of such a change out weigh the negatives before they approve of the plan if they do. 

In fairness, I would add that Summit Greenfield has reached out to the district and expressed a willingness to both address these issues and be a good neighbor.  I hope actions speak louder than words.

The issue of personnel status disclosure came up last year when longtime Greeley football coach and physical education teacher William Tribou was suspended and then resigned with a settlement with the district. The school board did not disclose details because it was a personnel matter, with a reason given that disclosure was not allowed. Is it appropriate for districts to not disclose personnel status when an individual is facing discipline or leaving, and would you support repealing limitation of school officials disclosing details of employee suspensions, terminations or resignations?

If you are asking if the exception to the open meeting law statutes of NY State should be revoked legislatively to allow for public discussion of personnel matters, my short answer would be, no.  I think that in personnel cases there are competing and often conflicting interests.  Mainly, the interest of the employee and their privacy versus both the public's right to know and the potential safety and welfare of students in the district.  That includes educational, physical and social welfare. 
The presumption made by both the exception to the open meeting law and by the rules and regulations governing a 3020-a hearing is that a staff member has the right to privacy at least until any allegations are proven, AND that the Board members through their sworn oaths and fiduciary obligations as Board Members are protecting the public's interest in personnel cases.  In the cases where the personnel issue is performance and not conduct, I think that the APPR process and the fact that those records are publicly reviewable, at least by the parents of children in the teacher's class, makes that part both public and accountable. 

Ethically, I am uncomfortable making what are allegations public until they are proven or stipulated to or agreed upon.  I ask a simple question, how does the employee get their good name back if the allegations are not true?  

The state-mandated cap on annual tax levy increases will expire in June 2016 unless if it is renewed. If elected, this would happen near the end of your term. Do you support allowing the cap to expire or should it be extended?

Again, this is a simplified question to a complex issue.  The June 2016 renewal is tied to rent control laws.  As per your link to a power point presentation, page 2 slide 6 last bullet point, "Expires June 15, 2016 unless rent control extended"  If rent control is extended, the tax cap will be as well.  While I would never rely on a political outcome, I would be very surprised if a deal to extend rent control did not happen. 

However, in short, without the benefit of seeing how it continues to work in the next 3 years, I support extending the tax cap.  I think the best case for the district would be for the tax cap to be extended while at the same time the state starts funding many of its own mandates such as pension plans.  But, even if the State were to continue to ignore the burden they shift from themselves to the local taxpayer and not address mandates, I would still support extending the tax cap.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Candidate Statement and Brief Biography for NCN

I was asked to submit a biography and candidate statement for publication in NewCastleNOW.  Here is what I submitted.

Jeffrey S. Mester:  Candidate Statement and Biography

Candidate Statement

This is my third time running for the School Board and I can safely say that the oddity of running for a volunteer position never seems to go away.  We are asking you, the community, to select us as the best, most appropriate volunteer.  So, first, I would like to recognize my fellow candidates, Warren and Rick, for their willingness to volunteer.  I admire their decision to offer to commit their time to the community.
One of the reasons I originally ran for the Board six years ago was because of my strong belief in my responsibility as a community member to serve our community in a way that best suits my qualifications with the community's needs.  That remains true today.

New York State says the qualifications for school board membership are an ability to read and write, be  a qualified voter, and be a resident of the district for at least one year prior to the election.   Not a very high bar indeed. 

Any candidate that receives enough votes can be a member of the Board of Education, but to be an effective member of the Board requires much much more.   It is not simply about being smart and having the time.   It is not about representing one segment of the community.

As  one of my fellow candidates will learn, there is a lot more to the job than the hot button issues.  It is easy to identify problems; it is much harder to offer solutions and make decisions.  I am the only candidate who can stand on a proven, successful track record of doing just that.

Being a school board member is about, first and foremost,  having a passion for education.  It is also about understanding education law and regulations, about understanding the budget, and about listening.  Listening to the community, listening to the students, listening to the administrators, listening to the staff,  and listening to your own gut.

Going forward, I will continue to work for ALL members of the community to reach responsible budgets.  I will further seek to reduce the burden on taxpayers by strengthening the public-private partnerships such as with the Chappaqua School Foundation and the Sports Boosters.  I will continue to support openness and transparency.  I will continue to support and seek public involvement and input. 

The Board cannot and should not face the challenges ahead alone.  We need community involvement and support. I will seek to bring the various interest groups including residents with children in the schools as well as residents without, and district personnel together to collectively and creatively find sustainable solutions for our district.

For the past six years, I have worked tirelessly on behalf of the members of this community to be an effective member of the school board.  It requires a person with an extensive and detailed knowledge of the district, a complete understanding of the budget and the structural budget issues the district faces, a person who can make practical and reasoned decisions, a person who is flexible and can build consensus, a person who can balance competing community interests, and a person who has vision and conviction.  There is no experience like direct experience and a proven track record.  I stand on mine.

Simply put, common sense with an uncommon commitment.

Brief Biography

I am 51 years old.  I have three terrific children one of whom graduated from HGHS last year and two currently in high school.  All three started in the district in Kindergarten at Roaring Brook Elementary School, attended Seven Bridges Middle School, and then went on to Horace Greeley High School.  My professional background is in the trading of equities and equity derivatives.  Most recently, I have been in the compliance side of the business.  I have an undergraduate BA in Economics from the University of Virginia and an MBA with a concentration in Finance from the Kelllogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University. 

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Reply to Comments and Questions on NCN

In response to this NewCastleNOW article and the comments below that article.  This is the unedited version from before I tried to get it into one 2000 character comment box.  

Usual disclaimers apply.  I do not speak for the Board of Ed.  I speak only for myself. This is not a district statement either.  Shake well before using.  Refrigerate after opening.  Your mileage may vary.

To C-O-N-T-R-O-L:  I can think of many reasons both positive and negative why we would want questions asked privately.  But, I think it is safe to say that whenever the Board or Administration replies to an email, it assumes that that email can and will be made public.  I do.

I do not agree with your assumption that it makes our job a lot easier if people don't hear each other's criticisms. That is only the case if you also assume our job is to ignore the public.  While I recognize that some people think that, I view our job as actually the opposite of that.  While I don't think we should just be a weather vane twisting in the wind with the latest opinion, I do think that we are elected as fiduciaries to the community and as such have an obligation to listen to what the community has to say which by the way can include complements.   If you read the post on my blog about deciding to run or not, I address this there.

I think it is also important for the community to know that the Board is not always in a 5-0 agreement on how to do things, but we do act as a consensus Board.  In general, after a consensus of the Board is taken, the President of the Board will fashion a response that reflects that consensus.  Whether I support that consensus response, I will always support that this is a majority rules Board and that the President has certain power/authority/obligation to respond in a way that (s)he sees fit within the consensus.

As for the last meeting and the timing of the two statements, I can tell you there was nothing Machiavellian about them. After almost 6 years on the Board, I can tell you that the announcement about the administrator's contract was put first, for two reasons.  One, it was not on the agenda anywhere because of the timing of the agreement with the Board (not agreed upon until after the agenda was made.  Agendas are generally set on the Thursday or Friday prior to the next meeting.) so it was put first, and, two, it was good news for the community in terms of the budget impact.  The meeting was primarily focused on the budget. Hence, put the budget item first.

The so called Tim Bloom response was not purposely moved to 11:00 pm or later in the meeting so no one would hear it.  First, Tim never wrote directly to the Board.  He wrote to the administration and published it here on NCN.  So, it was a little confusing as to who the Board would actually be responding to.  In the end, we were responding to the community in general, but we never got one direct piece of correspondence from anyone in the community about it. Writing anonymous comments on an internet blog is a very inefficient way to communicate with the Board.  (Any Board.)

Second, there are few people attending the meetings.  Most watch it on replay or on NCMCTV online.  Anyone could fast forward to find the portion they are looking for.  Third, it was on the agenda in the Superintendent's and President's report. Ironically enough, it comes later in the meeting because we moved the presentations to the beginning of the meetings so that the public could come to watch that and not have to wait until the end.  When I first got on the Board and prior to that, the business section came first and then the presentations.  We got criticized for that and changed it.

Legally, we are required to have an agenda.  It makes sense to stick to it as much as possible as we are also required to publish it in advance.  Some have suggested that we start earlier.  We have considered that.  I for one, would love to get home before midnight on a meeting night.  But, there were other considerations and other points of view.  In the past, we had a lot of feedback that starting earlier would make it particularly difficult for those with students in elementary and middle school to attend.  Between dinner and bedtime, starting at 7:00 or 7:30 would be a hardship for many.

One of the interesting things that happened at the last meeting is relevant here.  I am not sure how many people noticed it, but we received an email with several questions from a resident who was unable to attend the meeting.  President Tipp actually read the questions during the appropriate part of the presentation.  It is certainly a way to ask a question while not having the pressure or whatever of coming to the microphone.  I will sometimes email questions to the presenters in advance so that they are prepared to answer them publicly. I don't think it is fair to the public when someone says they will get back to you on that.  Then the response is not on the record.  Feel free to email the Board with questions you might have in advance.  If you send it to the President and/or all the Board members, I think the President would be more than happy to represent your questions at the appropriate time.

On a slightly similar note, Christine has been prodding the Board for several years to make its meetings live.  One of her concepts with having it live would be to have the ability for someone watching at home to ask a question maybe through email or a text or something. It is certainly something to be considered, although I have never seen it in practice.  I have suggested to Christine that I would be willing to do a live online forum answering questions.  I envisioned it something along the lines of a Reddit Ask Me Anything.  If I decide to run for a third term, I would definitely be willing to answer any question I legally could on any subject.

I think this Board has gotten an undeserved reputation by some of the anonymous commenters here on NCN as a closed Board.  Nothing is farther from the truth.  We have gone out of our way to be as transparent and forthright as we can.  Some items, particularly personnel and legal items, we are precluded from speaking about publicly.  It is frustrating to us too when we cannot speak about something we would want to otherwise.

Yes, we have a three minute stated limit on questions.  However, I can only remember two times where we actually imposed that limit and with those two times, we simply told the person they could ask additional questions after those who have not had a chance to ask any question yet already did so. Quite frankly, if you cannot ask one or two questions in three minutes time, then you are making a speech. I cannot think of anyone who has not had a chance to ask their question or make a comment at one of our meetings.

Do we get defensive at times? Sure, we are human.  We are also volunteers.  We are trying to do our best.  Really.  I recognize that we will not always be universally applauded for some of our decisions.  There are many issues where the community itself is divided.  I personally get frustrated when people think because we do not agree with them or do not take a certain course of action they support that we don't listen.  We listen, we deliberate, we consider ramifications and we decide.

I just want to make one more point about anonymous comments.  I get why some who make comments wish to remain anonymous.  It can be scary criticizing teachers or administrators when your child is in school. There is one school of thought that your child could be subject to retaliation.  Believe me when I tell you that I considered it myself when I speak out or when we negotiate, etc.  While it is a concern, I know the leadership of all the unions well.  I know many of the teachers in the district personally.  I give them more credit than thinking they would even dream of retaliation.  They are professionals dedicated to teaching.  It is just not something that would enter the mind of the staff.

I personally don't mind criticism.  I do mind personal attacks.  Question my thought process, question my vote, question my decisions, but don't question my integrity, don't call me names, don't make statements you know to be false or ones you don't know to be true.

I oppose anonymous comments.  I think using your name leads to a more civilized dialogue.  I think using your name gives your comment more credibility.  I get that some people want to hide behind the cloak of anonymity, but I don't condone it.

Finally, I wish the community would recognize that we are volunteers trying to do our best.  We don't get paid, we don't have any perks that I am aware of, and we don't get benefits.  We do spend a lot of time, we do work hard. and we do want to engage the public.  If it was such a great job, more people would be trying to do it.  It is a rewarding job if you care about education, care about the students and care to serve your community.  A wise former board member told me on the way out the door, that it is only a thankless job if you are expecting thanks.  I am not.

Edit: Feel free to post a comment here on my blog. I will reply to all that ask a question or ask for a reply.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

To Run or Not to Run, That is the Question

I wrote this email in response to a voice mail I received from Tom Auchtermonie, the editor of the Chappaqua/Mt. Kisco Patch.  Both he and Christine (New Castle NOW) asked about my plans to run again.


Thank you for calling.

That announcement put out by the LWV and the PTA regarding their April 2nd meeting is accurate.  They contacted me over the weekend to see what my status was, and I was ok with them sending out what they sent out.

I still have not run or not. They may have used the word "announced" which I prefer, but either way, I am still weighing the decision.

Serving on the Board for the past six years has been very rewarding for me and hopefully a positive for the district and community. There are many many factors both personal and school related that go into making this decision. 

I happen to think for a myriad of reasons that the district is at a critical crossroads as to the direction it takes.  While the budget issues that dominated my first terms are still there and will likely remain for years to come, I am very comfortable with how we have faced and will continue to face the pressures on the district in that regard. Negotiations with 3 of our 4 bargaining units have shown that the district and its units are trying to be true partners. 

I think, rightfully, that the focus going forward after this year's budget, will be a fight for the soul of the district.  By that I mean with a relatively new Superintendent, with new principals at Grafflin, Roaring Brook and Horace Greeley, with many many state and national mandates, the district has to decide who we want to be, what our mission will be going forward and how do we get there. It is going to take strong leadership to steer the district toward our goal. [Edit: Upon reread, I want to make it clear that I think we have that strong leadership in the district currently.]

Hopefully, one of the bi-products of Tim Bloom's open letter to the administration is a two way conversation between the district and the community about what we want, who we want to be, and how we accomplish those goals.  While I gave a general response on my blog,10514 Musings, I think it is important that the district, the board and the administrators have an open and frank discussion with the community about the future of this district. We need to find a shared vision, not an imposed one.

I think that being a Board Member for the next 3 years is going to take a significant commitment of time and energy.  It is why I hesitate. Whether I run or not, I strongly encourage members of the community to step up and make that commitment.  

I hope to make my decision shortly.  When I do, of course, I will let you and The Patch readers know.


Friday, March 15, 2013

Reply to Tim Bloom Letter to the Administration

(Note: I initially left off my usual disclaimer.  The absence of it does not change the fact that I am speaking only for myself, I do not speak for the district or the Board here.  All other disclaimers are valid here too. YMMV.)

I have told you this privately, but I think it important to reiterate it publicly. I very much admire your forthrightness and willingness to take personal risk by writing this letter.  Quite frankly, I wish I were not saying that there is personal risk in writing, but anytime you go against the establishment, in my days, "the man", you risk backlash.

As a School Board Member, I know that the district sometimes makes mistakes. I know that the reasoning for some decisions are not always readily obvious. I know that like any large institution that caters to all the students in the district we sometimes have to make compromises.  I know that there are times we are not even legally allowed to say why we do what we do.  It is all frustrating.  I add one more caution: Do not take the Board's silence in any circumstance as not caring or not aware or as tacit approval either.

One area in which I think we should never compromise is in our 'lofty ideals'. I have no knowledge of any of the facts of this particular letter. I am not writing now to comment on the particulars of this letter; this is something that Tim and his peers have to work out with the building administration. I am writing to thank Tim for starting the dialogue.

I would like to say that, in general, a successful district educates the entire student and the entire student body. If, in one of the Board's strategic questions, we as a district strive to educate critical thinkers, we must accept that that means allowing students to take risk, to make mistakes, and to learn lessons not only in the classroom, but also outside the classroom. Rather than stifle that urge, we should support it.

We need to support our students in extra-curricular activities including student council and self governance, in clubs, in sports, and in the performing arts. Education is not just learning the ABCs in the classroom.  It is not just your gpa or what classes you take. It is inclusive of after school activities.  We need to encourage our students to reach for their next level. We must let them challenge themselves. Sometimes that means taking risks ourselves.

Finally, at the risk of embarrassing you Tim, knowing what a terrific student you are, knowing of your dedication and fortitude on the football field, knowing you are a committed volunteer firefighter in Town, knowing you are student council President, and knowing that you are a good friend to so many, I sleep well at night comforted that future generations and future leaders like you will soon takeover.


Tim Bloom, Student Council President, Letter to HGHS Administration:

To the Horace Greeley High School Administration,
I was very disappointed to hear yesterday that the Greeley Games event that I proposed is not going to happen. Quite frankly, I'm not at all surprised, as this seems to be par for the course these days. It has gotten to the point where every single member of the Student Council is disenchanted with the way the administration is trying to dismantle the very things that had made Greeley great for so long. We have lost our motivation to try to engage the students, generate enthusiasm and a sense of community and make being a Greeley student more than capitulating to the arbitrary decisions of the administration. Why bother working on proposals and trying to innovate when we know the administration is going to say no? 
It’s funny that we are all so frustrated with our elected officials in Washington, yet the same thing is happening right here. Each time a new idea comes to the floor, we're getting filibustered, then left to take the blame for not taking action. It's really sad to see how significantly Greeley has declined over the past four years, from the exercise in political correctness gone mad re: the funball team name debacle to the arbitrary and ridiculous hoops that need to be jumped through to bring in a speaker, to the fact that a group was told they can’t sell hot chocolate in the morning for charity because it’s “too dangerous.” I don't feel as if I'm doing even half the job I ran for as President and the reason for that is the administration. Know that for us high school is more than just getting into college. It’s supposed to be an experience that matures us not just intellectually, but also in other ways. How can we do that when the only thing we are assured of is the academic aspects and those aren't so great anymore either? This school has become so resistant to positive new ideas that students actually care about and so concerned with the possibility of political incorrectness that nothing even has a chance. For example, how do we know that the event I proposed would have an attendance problem if it’s never happened before?
When I sat down with Mr. Rhodes and Mr. Corsilia in the beginning of the school year, I saw the potential to reignite at least some of the fire that I know Greeley used to have. I now know how wrong I was in thinking that. I know that interest in participating in Student Council is in rapid decline and I wouldn't be surprised if next year's group has trouble filling all of the positions, another sign that the administration is failing to provide a meaningful high school experience. People simply don’t want to deal with working hard and formulating new ideas only to be shot down. You are denying leadership opportunities to the next generation of leaders by rendering those who do want to lead utterly ineffective. It has become simply not worth my time either to think of fun creative ways to bring the school community together when I know that there is no chance of any of our ideas actually coming to fruition. I'm tired of being asked, "When are we going to have a school wide event?" or "When is something fun going to happen?" and not having an answer. From this day forward, I am going to tell anyone who asks that the administration won't let it happen. I don't want the students who elected me to think I don't care and haven't been trying mightily to bring this school back to its former greatness.
  I am deeply disappointed in the administration for not recognizing that the Greeley we all love is slipping away because they are afraid of innovation and trying something new. The other members of the Student Council feel the same way and share my disappointment in your decisions. I've spoken to many former Greeley students recently, some who graduated last year, some who graduated ten years ago, and some who were Student Council members themselves, and they are amazed that the Greeley they knew and loved bears no resemblance to the one I am graduating from in just a few months. This school has gone from a place of which I was proud to be President to a place that I can't wait to leave.  If it is your long-term plan to oversee a community of grade-obsessed, one dimensional, disinterested students then continue to do what you are doing. If you want a vibrant, engaged community of students who participate in their education more fully, then you need to reexamine how you interact with us. Less police state and PC paranoia and more positivity would help. Just today, I heard of two new issues that are all of the sudden problems in the eyes of the administration. I’ve been told that the beloved Greeley A Capella groups have to meet with you because the fact that they rehearse off the school campus is a problem. Why? Why do they have to change how they operate if they are successful as they are now? Isn’t this discouraging the independence that you encourage us to develop throughout high school? And now you want to change the traditional trip to Jones Beach for seniors? You have already dismantled quite a few senior traditions. Can you leave just one alone?
I feel compelled to write this as the elected representative of the student body, a position that I will continue to take very seriously until my term is up. I will continue to plan the events that are already on the calendar and I will continue to fulfill my responsibility of addressing the school at the coming assemblies and ultimately graduation, but I promise nothing more. The next time you need someone to represent Greeley, whether it be to a group of students from another country or one new student who will be joining this so-called community next year, find someone else. I don’t feel as if I can lend my time to your causes, if mine are not taken seriously. To summarize, we’ve all had enough of the arbitrary decisions. The Theatre Company just put on a play about sex (and a very good one might I add) without being questioned, and yet a song for the a capella concert was questioned because it included the word bullet and referenced guns. Can you explain that inconsistency? I can't. I wish you an uneventful rest of the school year.

Tim Bloom

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Budget Thoughts Part 1

It's been a while since I last posted, and to both of my regular readers (Hi mom!) I apologize.

As we approach budget season, I thought I would address some of the issues facing the district and some of the questions being asked of me by residents.

(The usual disclaimers apply.  I do not speak for the Board of Education or for the CCSD.  I speak only for myself as an individual Trustee on the Board. Shake before using.  Refrigerate after opening.  Your mileage may vary, etc.)

First, what was presented at the January 24th Board meeting is NOT the proposed budget for this year.  It was simply a preview of what the "rollover budget" would be.  A rollover budget is simply to take the exact programs we have this year and coupled with known contractual obligations project out what it would cost to keep things exactly the same.  The numbers for that were sobering.  They would far exceed the tax cap.

The budget presented tonight (February 27th)  is a first draft.  It called for an approximate 2.34% ($2.6 million) increase in the tax levy, well within our cap limit of 3.9%.  When asked by the reporter for the Examiner after the meeting if I like tonight's proposal, my response was that it is too soon to form an opinion.  Until we see the details and until we can put the dollar figures in context, it is premature to decide if it is the best budget we can submit to the voters.

Do I like the dollar amounts? I think that it is very important to come in under the tax cap number.  (More about that in a few paragraphs.) This budget does that.  Would I like to see the number be even lower? Yes, but at what cost? The need for fiscal restraint can only be considered withing the context of the proposed academic program.  Without getting into a long discussion about real estate values, taxes and the schools and how they all interrelate, I think the primary driving  factor for a majority of Chappaqua residents as to why they live here is the value proposition of the schools.  Said a little differently, the bigger picture fiscally prudent thing to do is to protect real estate values by continuing to offer the top academic program we can.

In tonight's presentation, John Chow, the Assistant Superintendent for Business pointed out that we are ranked 13th out of 46 in terms of per pupil spending in Westchester. I contend that per pupil spending is a good proxy for an efficiency measure if you consider it in context.  Arguably, we have the top school district in the county while only spending the 13th most per pupil.  It is easy to lower your per pupil spending if you are willing to cut programs and staff.  To have the broad and rich offering we do while not being even in the top 10 in spending is a testament to efficiency.

But why are taxes so high if we are only spending 13th in per pupil spending? That is a direct function of the mix between commercial and residential real estate in our tax base.  Most towns have a commercial tax base that effectively subsidize the schools.  In Chappaqua, we have one of the lowest commercial tax bases in the county.  Couple that with the fact that a good portion of our commercial tax base are condos that often have children in the schools and our commercial base can even be a drag on taxes (See the District's response to the Chappaqua Crossing DEIS for a detailed explanation) rather than a subsidy.

One thing I am happy about is that the administration, with this budget, demonstrated fiscal restraint in that they did not look at the tax cap as being a floor, but as it being a ceiling.  Over the next month and a half, we will get the details of the budget and I can form an opinion as to whether I think we are allocating our precious dollars in the most appropriate way.

A huge positive that came out of tonight's Board meeting was that in response to my question about listing any program that was being affected as a direct result of a budgetary decision (as opposed to an academic appropriateness decision) was that there really were no programs that were going to be cut.  That is a testament to the administration, the CCT and the Board all agreeing to be partners in the district and reaching a fair compromise on a two year contract for the CCT that saves the district $1.5 million over the course of the contract versus Triborough.

Parenthetically, it is important to note here that while the legislation passed last year is often referred to as the 2% tax cap, that is misleading.  It is a tax cap.  The 2% number is a baseline.  There are exceptions and there is a multiplier for growth so that the actual cap could be as high as 4% or more.  Also note that this is a cap on the tax levy, NOT the rise in taxes nor on the change in the budget.  While those two are related and intertwined, they are not the deciding factor in the tax cap.  Also understand that in a period of declining assessed real estate values, that while the tax levy cap may be 2% or may even stay the same, your individual taxes could still rise more than the amount of the change in the tax levy.  Following so far?

In my opinion, even if we think we can pass a budget that would exceed the tax cap, it is inappropriate to do so until we get to the point of being academically insolvent.  I define academically insolvent differently for Chappaqua than I do for New York State schools in general.  The term typically refers to the point when a district has cut every optional program, has used all of their reserves, and now cannot afford to even pay for required mandated state programs.  The State of NY requires certain amount of phys ed, english, social studies, math, etc to get a degree.  There are many districts in NY State that will be insolvent within two to three years.  For Chappaqua, I define it as the point we have to start dismantling programs against our wishes.

Budget and Contractual Obligations

The district starts its budget process each year with a zero based budget process.  We look at the district and assume nothing.  We look at it as if we are starting a new district each year and what would we put in our program if we were starting from scratch.

But, to be honest, while we may claim we use a zero based budget process and build it from the ground up, that is over simplifying the actual process.  Also, now that there is a tax cap, it almost flips the concept.  We now know what our ceiling for spending will be and we have to work backwards to see what fits under the cap.

It is over simplifying the process because for many reasons we cannot start with zero.  One, there are the previously mentioned state mandated programs we need to include. Two, there are contractual obligations that are in place as long as we are an operating school district such as transportation of students.

When building the budget, we know what our contractual obligations will be.  We also know historically what percentage of the budget is allocated to what items and because most of that is contractual, we can build almost all of the budget from that. The biggest contractual obligation is staff compensation.

We are currently in negotiations with all four of our bargaining units.  They are the Chappaqua Congress of Teachers (CCT), the Administrators, CSEA (Civil Service jobs) and COSA (clerical staff positions). Tonight, following yesterday's ratification by the CCT, the Board of Ed unanimously approved the terms of a Memo of Agreement (MOA) with the CCT that sets the financial arrangements of the next contract.  We are still negotiating some of the other language and work place conditions of the contract.

Later in this post I get into a discussion about the Triborough Amendment to the Taylor Law.  Now, know that the CCT has taken a major conciliatory step towards meeting the taxpayers half way between Triborough and a freeze.  There is no doubt that by their actions they are indicating their partnership with the district and its residents to work together to maintain the academic quality, the rigorous course offerings and the culture of learning in the schools.

Before I write one more word, I think it is important and appropriate to note that one of the aspects that makes the CCSD such a high ranked school district is our culture.  Part of that culture is emphasizing good relations between the district and its unions.

There is no question that I am not talking out of turn when I say that in my six years on the Board I have never seen either the Board or all four of our bargaining units waiver from a student first viewpoint.  That is true of the administration and CCT, but equally true of our clerical staff and our custodial and maintenance staff as well.  For example, as a member of the facilities committee, I see how hard our custodial and maintenance staff works and what a great job they do.  As a resident, I have seen numerous examples of the members of the CSEA stepping outside of their duties to help students both academically and personally.  I have seen members fix flats on student cars, have seen them stay late to accommodate a student theatrical production or a student meeting.

Historically, compensation has been around 75% of the budget, although that number is threatening to  creepi higher in recent years.  Let's use 77% for this year's hypothetical budget because the 38% increase in pension payments and the increase in health care costs to the district are in excess of the increase in payments our staff will pay.  Transportation, with rising gas prices will be about 7% of the budget.  Debt costs, net of savings from the energy performance contract, will run about 5% of the district's budget.

So, we already know that 90% of the budget is spoken for.  If we assume another 5% goes to operations and maintenance we are left with 5% of the budget being "discretionary".  But what is really discretionary?  We need to buy items such as text books (paper or electronic), supplies, technology, security, etc.

So how do we actually control the budget?  Through programs.  What non-required classes are we going to offer, what are the maximum and minimum sizes of those classes, what extracurricular programs are we going to offer and how is that going to be paid for (taxes or "pay to play").

Simple math tells you that if there is a cap on the increase in tax levy of say 3% adjusted, and 94% of our budget comes from the tax levy, if the sum of compensation, transportation and debt service rises by more than around 3%, we need to cut something.

That something is programs.  Also, we could try to find ways to provide the same programs in a more efficient or cost effective manner. Since compensation is almost 80% of the budget, that is where the majority of adjustments must be made to stay under the cap. Since salaries are collectively bargained and contractual, we cannot simply or unilaterally freeze salaries or even cut them.  So, the mechanism for controlling the total compensation line of the budget is a blunt tool, it is controlling the number of programs/staff.

For the teachers, because of State tenure rules, the only way to reduce staff is to eliminate a program.  In some cases, programs are eliminated because of enrollment.  For example, one year we may need one fewer 2nd grade teacher because enrollment dropped such that we can still maintain class size within district contract and policy while reducing the number of sections offered. Sometimes, even with a declining enrollment, unless we redistrict the elementary or middle schools, because the decline is spread our among the multiple schools, we are unable to take advantage of it for cost savings.  Another way would be to say we are dropping a program altogether such as the Spanish program at the high school or we are cutting kindergarten to a half day program.  (These are hypothetical and NOT actually proposed ideas.)

Another reason controlling the compensation through program adjustments is a blunt tool is that we as a district do not control which teaching staff member from a department or area of expertise is going to be cut. It is simply a LIFO (Last In, First Out) or FISH (First In, Still Here) system. Know that while I think there are valid reasons to put job security protections in place for certain staff, I would prefer that layoff decisions mimic hiring decisions in that we want to keep the best regardless of experience, salary level or any other metric other than a performance one.

To take a small digression, there are many problems with that system of layoffs beyond the fact that it does not take into account merit or effectiveness.  One, in these times of economic hardship coupled with the tax cap, we are not only not hiring less experienced teachers, we are laying off ones too.  This is creating a mid-term problem of not having a core group of teachers with between 3-8 years experience.  As teachers retire over the next 5-10 years, we will be drastically reducing our average years of experience for teachers.  Like any business there is an appropriate mix of lots of experience, middle levels of experience and newer staff.  Certainly in teaching experience does matter.  Teachers learn and grow as they become more experienced. Having experienced mentors in their school or their department is also a critical component of teacher growth. We don't want to lose an entire generation of possible mentors.

Also, less experienced teachers, those laid off first, are naturally paid less than more experienced teachers under the step plus salary increase compensation plan. So, we may be forced to lay off 3 less experienced (lower compensated) teachers for every two more experienced teachers.  The implication is that program cuts have a sort of multiplier affect on staff layoffs.

Triborough Amendment to the Taylor Law

The Taylor law is a law enacted by the state legislature that legally forbids police, fire personnel and teachers from striking.  Forbidding a union from striking takes away one of the union's most effective bargaining tools.  The legislature was persuaded to compensate or protect the unions for giving up the right to strike by passing the Triborough Amendment to the Taylor Law.

The Triborough amendment essentially says that in the event that bargaining in good faith fails and no new contract can be agreed upon at the end of an existing contract that the terms of that expiring contract will remain in place until successful conclusions to negotiations lead to a new contract.  Over time, the courts interpreted that to mean that while there will be no salary increases when Triborough is in effect, the continuation part means that step increases will continue to be implemented each year.  Also, the contribution to health plans stays frozen at whatever level was in effect at the end of the expired contract and any non cash terms such as work rules and other contractually agreed upon items remains the same as the expired contract.

What does that mean to us here in Chappaqua? Well, using the CCT as an example since they are by far the largest of our bargaining units, the average teacher, or the average step increase would be 2.68%.  To be fair and to be clear, not every teacher gets a step raise every year. The step schedule includes a few breaks in the mid teens number of years and stops altogether after a certain number (long term) service to the district. So, while the step increase is around 3% when it is relevant, since not every teacher gets one, the average is 2.68%.  I think it is also important to point out that step increases generally help the less experienced teachers more than the experienced ones.

Triborough seems to create a floor for compensation not at freeze levels, but at a RAISE of 2.68% per year.  In tough economic times like the ones in which we live, there appears to be no incentive for a union to settle for anything less than a raise of 2.7%.  To be fair, in good economic times, the district has that incentive to keep raises to a minimum and be at Triborough.

But, that is theory and while it may be how it actually works in other districts, it is not necessarily how it works here in Chappaqua.  That brings me full circle to the district establishing favorable work environment with its staff.  For example, in good times such as when we first signed our last new (not amended) contract with the teachers 5 years ago, we agreed to terms that were about double what Triborough would have been.  Not only were the step increases in place, but we also gave salary raises of about 3.4% too.  We could have come to no agreement and forced Triborough, but we did not.

Now, with the tax cap and with stagnant real estate prices and inflation being low, in order to preserve programs and even expand them, the only way to do so would be if our unions agreed to accept less than what Triborough guarantees them.  That is not to say actual salary cuts but, rather, less of an increase than they could demand legally.

I am precluded from speaking directly about current negotiations for both contractual and practical policy reasons.  As per above, the Board strongly believes that maintaining good relations with our unions comes in part from not negotiating in public.  We prefer to look at our relationship as a long term one.  We focus on our aligned interests, that of providing the best education to the students of the district.  Of course, where we differ, when we do differ, is on appropriate compensation levels.

Let me restate the good news I stated above.  The CCT and the district have agreed to financial terms of the next contract via a signed MOA. The members of the CCT agreed to accept less than State law mandated.  Both the CCT and the district have made major concessions so that we can continue to work jointly toward our goal of preserving and even growing the already rich academic program.  By accepting about a 2/5th haircut to Triborough, the CCT has allowed the district to materially reduce any staff reductions and program reductions we would have had to make in the absence of this compromise.

The CCT leadership and the administration (in conjunction with the Board of Ed) were able to sit down and have substantial discussions about the future of the district, about the financial issues facing the district and about creative ways to solve them.  By putting aside the larger rhetoric coming out of Albany and various interest groups, we were able to focus on what is important and best for Chappaqua.  I strongly believe that through this extensive discussion process the district and the CCT undertook has put us on a joint partnership path towards finding mutually acceptable solutions to our financial constraints going forward.

To use the CCT as a demonstrative example, compensation comes in four areas.  One is cash salary.  That is the amount a teacher is paid per school year.  Second, is the district's contribution to the state mandated defined benefit pension plan.  Third is the district's contribution to an employee's health insurance plan.  We also have to consider what benefits that health plan provides such as deductibles, co-pays, prescription benefits, etc.  The fourth part of compensation are other benefits.  Some of those are hard to quantify.  Some are not universal to all four unions.  For example, the CCT has a ten month work year with about 4 weeks of paid vacation during the 10 month work period.  All the unions have provisions for sick days and personal days.  Look at the contracts closely enough and you will find that one union even has a paid day off for their birthday.

To be fair to both the district and the bargaining units, locally, we really only have control over 1.5 of those 4 areas.  1.0 is salary or cash compensation and the other 0.5 is the percentage of health care contribution.  There are of course some local work condition items we can negotiate locally such as work hours or working conditions (number of students per class, custodial staffing levels on snow days, etc)

In theory, one way to rollover or keep every program we have this year next year would be with a salary freeze.  We will pay you exactly what we paid you this year, next year.  But, Triborough says that can only happen if it is collectively bargained that way.  We cannot unilaterally impose wage freezes like a private sector employer could.  So, to put it in trader parlance, in theory, the opening market for negotiations would be the district bidding freeze and the unions offering Triborough.  They could theoretically ask for more than Triborough, but the district would not be compelled in any way to pay more.

With a two sided market of freeze bid, offered at Triborough, it would appear that the bargaining units have the upper hand because in the absence of an agreement, Triborough (2.68% increase) will be imposed.  However, that assumption presumes that the only goal of the bargaining unit is pay increases.  This is where having a good working relationship with our bargaining units can show quantifiable results.

This week, the CCT demonstrated that their goals are broader and more in line with the residents than simply maximizing salary over the short term.  They recognized that program preservation and thus job preservation is in everyone's best interest.  They recognized that long-term financial sustainability is in their interests as well as the taxpayers.

I can unequivocally say that the Board of Ed and the administration respect the teachers as individual teachers.  We are proud of having the best faculty anywhere.  Our teachers are dedicated, hard working and selflessly working for the district's students.  I can also say that the CCT leadership is appreciative of the district's financial limitations, are creative in working towards solutions, and recognize that the real goal is providing the best academic experience we can for the students in the district.

Personally, I think it is a meaningful sign that the CCT views themselves as partners with the district by compromising on a contract that is somewhere between a freeze and Triborough.  Accepting less than is legally guaranteed (Triborough) is a real concession on the part of the CCT.  And, while it is not without a small part that is self serving (possibly saving jobs and programs), it is really benefiting the students.

I also have to add that were any of our bargaining units to accept terms that are less than Triborough, it is a big risk for that bargaining unit because they are under pressure from their own state union leadership to hold the ground.  Do not underestimate the pressure on local unions to hold onto a system that may not even be in their own best interest, but that guarantees certain short term benefits. Do appreciate how
deviating from the state union's leadership is a true sign that the union is partners with the district, not adversaries.

Let's face it, school budget issues are present in every school district in the state.  The district's staff all live in school districts that face the same issues we do.  They pay high school taxes in their districts too.  They understand both sides of the equation because they live on both sides.  Residents that simply complain that the unions are "not living in the real world" or are "blind to the issues" are, quite frankly, ignorant or willfully being misleading.

Other Budget Issues

So how do we keep the budget under control other than through staffing levels?  Well, there are several options.  We continue to seek ways to be more economically efficient.  Starting next year, our elementary schools will join with our middle and high schools in going to a six day schedule.  We will also be extending the class day at the elementary schools by a half an hour a day.  The six day schedule and the extra half an hour will give the students materially more instruction time, will allow us to be more flexible when pulling students out of classes for individual instruction, will allow us to expand some of the specials, and, not insignificantly, it will allow us to schedule staff development days (half days and full days) on Fridays so that the entire family benefits from an extended weekend rather than a midweek interruption.

(Next year's school days schedule was recently approved and can be found here on the district website.(pdf)  It is a material improvement over this year's although to be honest, the Board has little control over a lot of it.  There is a two week vacation over Christmas/New Year's, there is a full week off in February, another full week in April, a four day Memorial Weekend, and staff dev days will be on Fridays allowing for several 3 day weekends.)

Another option is to cut out facilities maintenance.  That is a short sighted decision that is really a non-starter. It would make future budgets even more difficult. It is the exact approach we have spent over a year fighting with BOCES about.  After putting off needed maintenance, the component districts are now faced with $18 million in repairs.

We could go to a "pay to play" model for all extracurricular activities including, sports, theater, clubs and organizations.  We may one day have to resort to that, but that is a last gasp measure.

Bottom Line

What does this all mean? I can talk in circles about the budget and the theories behind the creation of a budget, about negotiations, about partnerships, about anything at all, but the bottom line everyone asks the Board Members and the administration is, "How does this affect me?"  For about half, that means what is going to happen to my taxes next year, and for the other half it is a two parter, what happens to my taxes and what happens to my child's education.  How does it affect my child directly.

I can safely say here that the Board, the administration, the teachers, and all of our staff have as their primary goal, working together to provide the best education, the best environment for learning and the best overall program.  More directly, the district and its unions will work together to find a way to reach financial compromises that will ensure that we continue to offer the best public school education, that we continue to innovate and stay on the cutting edge of teaching and program offerings, and that we will stay below the tax cap mandate.