by Marissa Maier
Anticipating a rare turnout, the Sag Harbor school board switched the venue from the library to the auditorium in the days leading up to Monday’s board meeting. Hundreds of parents, teachers and community members poured in to discuss roughly $1.877 million in proposed budget cuts for the 2010-2011 school year. One week ago, the board presented a list of 65 potential reductions and this week they unveiled 25 additional items. Before any cost savings were proposed, last week business official Janet Verneuille showed a total budget of $32,593,356 with a proposed tax rate increase of 16.94 percent.
“This is the culmination of five different board meetings to prepare the budget,” said superintendent Dr. John Gratto on Monday. “We think the tax levy is unacceptable and we the administration have some cuts for the board’s consideration.”
Audience members worried over the recent wave of possible cuts, chiefly the pre-kindergarten program, consolidating grades 5 and 6, reducing the contributions to the Y.A.R.D. program, and rearranging the closing and start times of school. A full list of the cuts can be found at www.sagharborschools.org/?q=node/1170.
The board mulled over stalling the implementation of a pre-kindergarten program. They ultimately decided to keep the plan in place, but it appears the district will most likely not provide mid-day transportation to and from the half day program, saving the school $91,000. Elementary school principal Matt Malone explained SCOPE, an educational services organization, will run the program and the school will spend roughly $30,000 to equip a classroom for the children, but will charge about $2,800. Parent Helen Atkinson-Barnes worried SCOPE wouldn’t be able to provide a truly universal pre-k program, saying tuition could hinder which children attend.
Many parents asked the board to reconsider a plan to reduce grades 5 and 6 from four to three sections, which would save $140,000. Dr. Gratto pointed out sections would change from about 16 to 21 kids per class, and the two teachers may choose to fill vacant positions in the arts and special education departments. Pierson teacher Nell Lowell said she had seen the seventh grade undergo similar measures and noted it had a dramatic effect on education. Malone also expressed some reservations, saying “As a district we are committed to small class sizes and we have been reaping the rewards of small classes … While there are 63 students in fourth grade now, we could be faced with having that class exit and all the other classes be four sections.” Several parents worried these positions won’t be reinstated.
Others implored the board to reinstate funding for the Y.A.R.D. program, with a proposed reduction from $20,000 to $10,000. Parent Sandy Kruel pointed out that school parents helped start the program a decade ago to fill a void for the lower grades of the middle school. Director Debbie Skinner noted YARD’s budget was quartered last year and the school’s funding was integral to sustaining the program.
The first proposed cut is changing the Pierson school day from 7:36 a.m.-to-2:36 p.m., to 7:25 a.m.-to-2:25 p.m., and pushing the elementary school dismissal time to 3:15 p.m. instead of 3:05 p.m., which will save the school around $150,000 in transportation costs. However, many parents and one student pointed out that research shows older students benefit from later start times.
“No one is really enamored with it,” said board member Gregg Schiavoni of the idea. Board member Dan Hartnett countered, “I am an educator, I know all about start times. I am looking at $150,000 and that is two or three positions.” Dr. Gratto said the board likely doesn’t have enough time to analyze switching the start time of Pierson with the elementary school.
With all 90 cuts, the budget will be reduced to $30,867,492 with a spending increase of 4.14 percent and a tax rate increase of 9.76 percent. The board added they will most likely put up a referendum to purchase additional buses, to help reduce transportation costs. The vote will take place on May 18.
Parent David Diskin noted it will take a lot of work and community effort to get residents out to vote for the budget, pointing out the bond vote in December had a low voter turnout, while teacher Jim Kinnier believed the community would support a larger budget. Parent Jennifer Houser worried there isn’t enough time to mull over these cuts before the board has to vote on the budget next Monday, March 22.
“We are in the middle of a national recession. We are looking at a ten percent increase. I don’t think this will pass,” noted parent John Battle. “If we go to a contingency budget it could get bloody.”
Dr. Gratto explained that if the budget is voted down twice the board would be forced to revert to a contingency budget and trim an additional $1,281,959 in non-mandated expenses, including some sports and guidance. He believes this will decimate the school’s program.
Parent Susan Lamontagne pointed out that parents account for roughly 25 percent of voters and noted the school needs to bring in the support of the swing voter. She added that all segments of the community need to come together to defend the budget, and remarked that if the teacher’s union is willing to accept certain concessions as part of their contract, the school would be able to save additional monies.
However, teacher Peter Solow worried the discussions on the budget were dominated by talks of cuts, bus schedules, etc., instead of how to improve the program.
“Where is the vision?” asked Solow, who believed this is an important element in rallying the community behind a budget plan.
The board agreed to start next Monday’s meeting early, at 6 p.m., to go over the proposed cuts before voting on the 2010-2011 budget. Board Member Ed Haye added that within the next 60 days, the board would craft “the story of the budget” to help parents and school members persuade the rest of the community to vote in support of the budget.