The passing of the 2010-2011 school budget was a victory for many but not for all. With a 30 vote margin, we’d like to remind the administration that it was a slim win. We are personally delighted that the budget passed. It saved the community from rounds of ugly discussions about a second budget with deeper cuts or worse, adopting a contingency budget which would have gutted school programs. But the 1,021 voices who protested this budget by voting against it cannot be ignored.
In all honesty, we had our doubts along the way that this budget would pass. We weren’t sure the community would stomach this kind of kick-in-the-gut tax rate increase in one year, especially when the board and TASH are still in the midst of negotiating a contract and there was an uncontested school board election. Yet in the face of the worst economy in decades and with school budgets going down in defeat across the state and the nation, once again the Sag Harbor community surprised us and the “yes” vote was galvanized in a record voter turn out.
The number of “no” votes though was equally remarkable, but in a different way. It quantified the number of people in the district who are troubled by the school’s economy in some way, and who chose to remain anonymous during the budget process. Based on the information of the exit survey, it appears most “no” voters are mainly troubled by employee costs — especially what that means looking into the future and if the school community will be able to bear those costs in the years to come.
It is true that some expenses, like the pensions, require changes at the state level in how these benefits are funded and this system is structured. However, there are certain costs, like salaries and health insurance, that can be effectively negotiated at the bargaining table. We’ve read that many other districts are doing just that now — even in pricey zip codes in Westchester — in order to ensure that staff doesn’t have to be laid off and painful program cuts made. Our understanding is that this board is looking at the school’s finances not just one year down the road, but three or five years ahead. And this kind of cost analysis is sorely needed today to avoid pain in the future. We bear in mind that this budget season brought with it a number of unique fiscal battles, from having virtually no fund balance to losing a sizable amount of state aid to making erroneous projections on certain revenues and expenses.
But without slowing the growth of contractual expenses, we worry that the community may continue to see high or double digit increases in consecutive budget cycles — even as most residents will not see their own salaries and benefits packages increase, but more likely, shrink as their employers cut back to adjust to a new, but hardly improved, economy. Although the community truly rallied together in a commendable and awe inspiring way this year, we aren’t sure the public will lend the same support if we are to see these sorts of double digit increases in the school budget next year.
For us, the next logical next step in putting this issue to rest, and easing the minds of the “no” voters, is to resolve the teachers’ contract dispute in a fiscally responsible manner. The news from Monday’s negotiation session appears promising, but given the history of relations between the board and TASH we are only cautiously optimistic. We encourage the board and TASH to remain aware of future cost projections and come to a sustainable solution for everyone involved — including those students at Pierson today who someday hope to be able to afford to raise their own families here. At the end of the day, we want our school to continue to operate in the decades to come, but not in a way that bankrupts the next generation. And the onus is on today’s board, union, and community to make sure this happens.