Lois Favre, the superintendent and principal of the Bridgehampton School discusses the school board’s decision to pierce the state tax cap and the difficulties of managing school finances in the current environment.
By Stephen J. Kotz
The Bridgehampton School Board will ask voters to approve a budget that pierces the state’s tax cap levy. What happens if the budget is voted down?
While a 10-percent increase in spending sounds ominous, the dollar amounts needed to provide what students need is less significant. The anticipated rate per $1,000 in assessed value will be somewhere around $1.77. That’s lower than other areas in Southampton, with Sag Harbor being at $5.24, and Southampton at $2.40 for 2013-2014.
Failure to secure a 61-percent majority vote means $1.1 million in cuts. We would need to cut prekindergarten, after-school programs, part-time positions, clubs, staff development, and staff. We would cut intramural sports, technology, textbooks, and summer curriculum work.
Bridgehampton has been holding annual community forums to search for budget savings. Can you tell us what some of those belt-tightening measures have included?
In 2012, all staff agreed to a 0-percent increase in salary with no step increases for teachers. We moved to a self-operating café, did not replace three staff members. A 15-percent cut to materials and supplies was made.
In 2013, administrative costs came to the forefront with the retirement of the principal. I have taken over principal responsibilities. We realized savings in transportation through shared services. We had one teacher retire and did not replace that teacher. We made further reductions in a myriad of budget lines.
It is clear that the governor’s tax levy cap takes specific aim at controlling school spending. But with personnel costs taking up such a large percentage of the typical budget, how is it possible to meet the cap without negotiating major concessions from teachers and other staff members?
Rising increases are also due to unfunded mandates by the state and federal governments. The Race to the Top Initiative provided only $7,500 over three years to our district. This was all the money provided to us to train staff in new initiatives.
Without concessions on the part of staff or the elimination of positions we will be hard pressed to continue to meet our contractual needs. Negotiations require give and take—without funding we do not have much to offer. Health and retirement increases also impact our budgeting significantly.
State funding has decreased over the years—and while not a mainstay of our budget, it could make the difference between piercing and not piercing the cap.
There have been many calls the past couple of years for school districts to cut spending by examining more “shared services.” Is this a realistic way to save money or is it just window dressing?
Superintendents continue to investigate sharing costs. Regulations, scheduling and contracts often prevent the sharing of services. We belong to a food consortium for our café, and to BOCES for more buying power for technology, staff development, and various services. Regulations need to be reviewed to permit sharing, across municipality and district lines, and contracts.
With more than 100 school districts on Long Island, it seems that consolidation is the elephant in the room that nobody is willing to talk about. How long can small districts such as Bridgehampton reasonably expect to stand alone before politicians in Albany see their lucrative tax bases as a way to provide property tax relief to other districts, such as Sag Harbor, and force the issue of consolidation?
Compelling research to consolidate smaller districts is limited at best. The savings are often modest, and the need for administration and infrastructure eventually increases costs. Consolidation requires a leveling of salaries and benefits, increasing transportation costs, as well as some transition costs. I cannot speak for others, but I have seen firsthand the value of a small learning community, dedicated to the families it serves. We must consider the impact consolidation would have on the students and the communities we serve.