John Gratto

Posted on 26 February 2009

John Gratto

The Sag Harbor superintendent of schools on balancing the budget and what the federal stimulus package means to the district.

Could you sum up the current fiscal situation of the district at this point, are there going to be any mid-year cuts?

At one point the governor proposed a mid-year budget reduction, but in fact that was never passed by the legislature. But in anticipation of that, on October 6, 2008 we froze spending by $100,000. Even before that we had saved over $300,000 without reducing educational programs. That was good in that it helped to keep our education programs in place and it helped to carry over money for next year, to help minimize taxes for next year.


Do you anticipate some change in state aid or economic stimulus package from the federal government – and how do you see that working within our district.

Governor [David] Paterson’s proposal is still just a proposal, so it hasn’t been acted upon by the legislature yet. Last week, the stimulus package was approved by the federal government so that is scheduled to give us about $190,000 more in aid, that we are thankful for. If we get that it will keep programs in place and minimize taxes to the public.


Do you believe that the economic stimulus package is going to be enough for the district?

I do, because in total we had made about $677,000 in cuts in the budget for next year. If you look at the budget to budget numbers all in total we cut out $677,000 dollars, that’s on top of the $310,000 we cut this year. So all told, that brings us to a place where we have high quality programs in place and I hope we have a tax levy that the public will believe is reasonable.


What is the current proposed tax levy for next year’s budget?

What we will share with the board tonight [Monday] is 4.5 percent; but I say share with the board, because it is the board’s decision and they aren’t scheduled to adopt the budget until March 23. They may decide that is too high, or may decide they want some more cuts to get to a lower tax rate, or more revenue to get to a lower tax rate. But the 4.5 percent is for both towns.


What will the funds from the stimulus package be used for?

Funds won’t come till next school year. They have targeted it for IDEA funds. That stands for individual disabilities education act. When the law changed in 1974, it said that all students with disabilities must receive a full education. The state at that time promised 40 percent funding. But in fact, it has never given 40 percent funding; it has been about 12 percent funding since 1974. With this new stimulus package, the funding will go up to 22 percent of the cost of educating special education students. Still not what they promised, but still 10 percent better, so that is good for us. A lot of that goes to paying for special education staff, we have a lot of students here that are special education and probably 12 or 15 special educators, so it will go toward paying their staff instead of that being funded in the general education portion of the budget.


Do you anticipate any cuts to programs for next year?

No, again, we have been stingy on staff development. From a student’s perspective, I don’t think they would notice any difference. They will still go on field trips, they will still have sports events and still go to a music competition. The staff has retrenched a bit, for example I didn’t go to a conference last week in California – the American School Administrators Conference, it may have been valuable, but I didn’t go. The staff has retrenched some but I don’t think the students will notice.


Will the economic stimulus package make up for the loss of revenue that we have seen in the district or will see this year?

Yes actually it will. The details are still being flushed out, but here is how I understand it on February 23. Governor Paterson in his budget proposal, proposed that Sag Harbor get $185,000 less in aid. As I understand it, our stimulus package was designed to offset that. So in fact it will; we will get $190,000 in aid, which will offset the $185,000 cut proposed by the governor. Typically we get an increase in state aid, so this year not to have a reduction is progress.


Do you anticipate problems in the future, and how do we mitigate the problems for next year?

Anticipate problems in the future? Yes. I think that next fiscal year will be even more difficult than this fiscal year. I say that because assessments are typically two years behind. Typically people have challenged their assessment, it is certainly possible that in East Hampton and Southampton, they will go down. If that is the case, then there are thousands of dollars to assess from and therefore people’s tax rate may go up. Nobody likes their taxes to go up. So we have made an awful lot of cost efficiency savings this year and we may have to look for more next year. I think programs will be in greater jeopardy next year, than they are this year.


What programs would you think might be in jeopardy?

I would look closely at everything that isn’t mandated. I would look closely at athletics, music, guidance counselors. I’d have to look at kindergarten. And that is unfortunate, because all those things add to the quality of the school system and I would hope that we wouldn’t have to dismantle any of them. There is always a balancing act between keeping quality and keeping quality at a price that people are willing to pay. I often draw the analogy that running a school is like running a really big house. What happens at your house? If you want something you have choices, you either put it off, or go make more money so you go get a part time job – that’s kind of what revenue is. Or you decide to live without it. And we may have to live without a few things. They may be mitigated by increased revenue, but we have to take a look at everything and see how important it is.


What are some of the positives that you see right now?

I think fundamentally, everyone should keep sight of that we have a great school system in place already. So if we had to live without some program, there is probably a chance that some other school doesn’t have that program anyway. Fundamentally we have an awful lot of good things in place, great academic results and great extra-curricular offerings, so even if we were to cut some out, we would still have a great quality program. One of the things that I think of is that we have a program at the Elementary School called Japanese culture. Well, suppose elementary students didn’t get exposed to Japanese culture – its enriching, it’s nice, but it doesn’t have a great impact. We may have to make some decisions like that. We have a good counselor-to-student ratio as opposed to other schools – suppose our student ratio wasn’t that good, it wouldn’t matter. Our students wouldn’t get help that quickly or as thoroughly as they need to, but those are some decisions that we may have to make. The counselor-to-student ratio is one-to-150; in other schools it is one-to-250. Our students get help quickly and effectively; if they were in another school they would have to wait longer to see a counselor. Those are the types of things we could look at, because we can’t touch the core in structural program. But there are an awful lot of good things in place here. 

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