Categorized | A Conversation With

Walter Wilcoxen

Posted on 02 April 2009

The president of the Sag Harbor Board of Education on crafting this year’s budget, why he wouldn’t cut programs and making priorities


How long has the budget process taken for the 2009-2010 budget?

We basically began talking about it during the summer in our goals meetings. And we try to set overall points of interest that the board members may have and the administrators may elaborate on. And then we generally send the contract to John [Gratto, Sag Harbor Superintendent of schools] and Len [Bernard, business manager] and the principals and they develop their budgets within the guidelines of this general discussion that we had in the summer.

We get updates, every once in a while, every month or two. The Budget Advisory Committee sees a lot more of the data in the beginning, although we do see it at the committee level. I’m on the Long Range Planning Committee, so I see that part of that in great depth. Of course we can see any part we want, but there is so much to see. But January is when we really start looking at the budget.


 In your opinion, how has this year’s budget process compared to previous years?

Well I think the budget has been more guided by the superintendent this year. I think he’s brought some new ideas and some thoughts that we may not have had before. He has certainly come up with some ways for us to save some money. He is very traveled in his experience with education in the sense that he has seen many things.

The [budget] process has also changed, and it is hard for me to say what happened before my time on the board, but in my three years it has gone from being delivered to us with very little information, to being delivered to us with a lot of information and explanation.

I think it has been an improvement. Improvement is usually gradual, and it hasn’t been a great change, but I think there has been an improvement. The budget advisory committee – they don’t always know which direction they want to go in – because I think they have been so successful – they have reached a major goal of transparency so now what do they do? It’s always changing. They are examining things in a different light now. There is a lot of transparency now, and there are things that have been spoken about that are not going to come up later. It’s a trust and honesty thing, for all people.


 What are some of the items you feel are necessary in this year’s budget?

My expertise is facilities, so it’s not so much what we added this year… but there will be approximately $200,000 for the auditorium repair and the air conditioning. And we’ve needed that for 20 years, so we are finally doing it. And that is an important thing. The [long range planning] committee has shared with the board that we need to make a greater emphasis to keep our facility up to date, and that is going to require a certain capital budget every year. And we can’t short change it. No matter what increase the teacher’s get or what the cost of living goes up, or what fuel oil goes up, we still have to take care of the facility.

By cutting back on that, you have these situations where there may be $1 million worth of parking repairs. That may not be done next year, but certainly over the next five to ten years they will have to be done. It will just be intolerable and impossible to drive a car into them. So if you take care of the facility better, maybe we won’t have these lump sum commitments that are going to be required of us.

Schools are generally taken care of this way, they pass a bond, they do the work, and then it slowly deteriorates over time; because they don’t put enough money into it – because it would inflate the budget.

I also think the bus is a great idea. That idea came from the superintendent because in one of his previous employs he even drove the bus once in a while, when a bus driver was out. To him it’s natural, why don’t we drive our own busses to special events and sporting events and things like that?

John [Gratto] and Len [Bernard] looked at that, and Len did a great job of coming up with some numbers. And it looks like we are going to save a considerable amount of money over time. And that is the type of thinking we need from everybody in the district. Top to bottom, front to back, we need this type of thinking – how can we save money? Even if we have to spend money now, how can we save over time?


When considering this year’s budget, which items do you believe are top priority?

Priority to me is the structure of the building. That is what I have been interested in and involved in for the longest time. I have been on the Facility Needs Committee almost 15 years ago. And that whole experience shaped what I do now, for the district. You get this cross section and Dr. John Barnes, the superintendent then, did a great job, he got a cross section of the community and got everybody involved, brought them all in the room, told the problems to us, and we realized the problems were even greater than what he brought to us. It was a long journey to make a recommendation to the board of education to keep the school in the district where it is.

Nobody disagreed … everybody was represented … we thought our role was over. But it wasn’t over, it had just started.


If we had to make cuts from this year’s budget – where do you see those things coming from?

I don’t see a lot of cuts this year. Even if we go to austerity, we are only talking a couple hundred thousand dollars. I don’t know the answer – that would be a discussion to have in public with the other six board members and the superintendent. Would you not do the middle school girl’s soccer team? Would you cut some of the clubs? I think we would probably look at a cross section of things. I think we wouldn’t try to cut the program. You have to do what you have to do to get there. If you said we were only going to have three classes in each grade level – then you need to have that discussion with the community. It needs to be a general discussion over time.

If we were in a depression there is no doubt in my mind that I would do whatever it takes to get school taxes down. But I don’t see that happening.


Is there is anything you would like to say to the community about this year’s budget, and what it represents for the community, while considering the economy at this time?

I believe that school boards and school meetings are the beginning level of democratic government. Number one, you are not paid so lobbying doesn’t work. In addition, if someone doesn’t like the way I do something, or any of the board members, your term is at most three years.

[The school board] teaches us about democracy at a local level, where one to ten votes can make the difference in a budget passing.


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