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Crowds Turn Out for Budget Cuts Talk

Posted on 18 March 2010

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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.

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21 Responses to “Crowds Turn Out for Budget Cuts Talk”

  1. These cuts have been proposed by many people for many years. Some of the budget committee members have been asking the board of education to cut back on teacher aids and increase class size for many, many years. You now even have school administrators who in the past advocated for larger class size and fewer aides. With state aid cuts finally a stark reality, the increasing cost of sending kids to special programs, the devaluation of propety and the decision by board members to use rainy day funds to keep taxes down in the past and the school board members re-elected, we are finally going to see the teacher cut backs and staff reductions that some in the community always wanted. The staff should be the last cuts. In fact if we had a little more staff maybe we could do more in house cheaper and not spend literally millions to send kids out of the district for special assistance. Solow is right, be a little creative here because school aid is not coming back and outside costs are not going down, and you can’t pad budgets to create left over money because that is simply over taxation, so be creative and save jobs.

  2. saggish says:

    “if we had more staff aybe we could do more in house cheaper”?
    Listen, the thing that got us into this problem will not be the solution to it. If teacher salaries and “steps” keep going up, there is little alternative to fewer staff positions. I think it very unlikely that a 10% tax increase will be approved. And please, I have a teenager, I know they don’t do well before 2:00 PM, but we’re talking 10 minutes, I think they’ll survive. Does anyone think that is not worth over $100,000?

  3. We have programs in place. If we get cuts in state aid, and we do not earn the the interest we used to, and the cost of special education goes up, then what do we do if we want to maintain the programs and the small class size that is so effective? We have to pay for it. Everything costs. Just like the preident’s public health program will cost money, public educatin costs money. I read southampton school district still has a $2 million gap between revenues and spending. The southampton superintendent said they will close the gap and that will most certainly mean a little more tax to pay for quality education. Aren’t the kids worth it? Our budgets passed easily over the last three years in Sag Harbor because people want good education. People understand if the state doesn’t help, if federal money goes away, and costs go up (as they always do) it is up to us to give our children what they deserve. Lets be fair to everyone.

  4. John Battle says:

    March 20, Newsday by John Hildebrand

    After more than 20 months without a contract, one of Long Island’s highest-paid teacher unions has acknowledged “tough” financial times and accepted a temporary pay freeze – a rarity for the region.

    Next year, Roslyn’s 316 unionized teachers will go without a contractual raise for 12 months and also forgo their usual annual “step” increase for six months. The district’s administrators estimate that the concession – which reflects a general slowdown in teacher raises across the Island – will save $1 million. Roslyn’s total budget is $94.7 million.

    The freeze is the Island’s first for a teachers’ union in more than four years, according to labor leaders and past news coverage. Brentwood and Lindenhurst now are pressing their teachers for future freezes or raise deferments, and Plainedge teachers recently signed a five-year contract with 1 percent raises in each of the first two years.

    “Obviously, the zero is going to stick out for everyone,” said Eleanor Russell, president of the Roslyn Teachers Association. She noted, however, that the new agreement boosts salaries by a total of 6.1 percent over four years, and called it “overall a fair agreement.”

    Salaries this year range from $54,567 for a first-year instructor with a bachelor’s degree, to $132,312 for a 30-year veteran with a doctorate.

    However, the agreement signed last week eliminates a clause that formerly guaranteed Roslyn would always rank within the top three districts in Nassau County in terms of salaries. In addition, teachers will gradually up their contributions for health insurance from 12 percent of costs to 20 percent.

    District officials say higher contributions will save about $600,000 annually.

    Dan Brenner, Roslyn’s superintendent for the past year, acknowledged that negotiations that began under his predecessor, John Richman, were difficult at times. Brenner added that the new contract was cobbled together “with awareness of the difficult economic times we’re involved in, and I think that benefits everyone, including the taxpayers.”

    Meryl Waxman Ben-Levy, the school board president, added that the agreement would help Roslyn maintain “an excellent, quality educational environment.” As part of the package, teachers agreed to extend the elementary school day by 20 minutes – to six hours, 25 minutes.

    Teacher contracts have a significant impact on the Island’s economy, because they constitute the largest share of school expenses and account for more than 60 percent of property taxes.

    Even after the 2008 stock market meltdown, teacher salaries have continued to climb across the Island, but at a slower pace than in the past.

  5. Consider This says:

    Let’s consider a few things from this article…
    1. “Eliminates a clause that formerly guaranteed Roslyn would always rank within the TOP THREE districts in Nassau County in terms of SALARIES”…isn’t that special! Sag Harbor teachers ALMOST got to median with their comp districts in the last contract.
    2. Health Insurance contribution at 12%…Sag Harbor teachers have been paying 15% in service since 2000.
    3. $54,567. for a first year teacher with a bachelor’s degree…that’s $7,500. higher than a first year BA level teacher in Sag Harbor.
    4. Sag Harbor’s work day is an hour longer that Roslyn’s has been.
    With those conditions I can’t imagine any Sag Harbor Teacher that would complain about a SIX MONTH freeze!!!!

  6. John Battle says:

    I posted this article because it appears that many other districts are facing very similar challenges and some are finding ways to cooperate in order to protect their schools. How we do this would be a different matter but if we do not start working together much will be lost! Consider that.

  7. Fiscal Mismanagement says:

    Consider this! The Sag Harbor teachers have already taken a pay freeze for 2 years because their contract has expired. If you read the article about Roslyn, you will note that they will also get a substantial pay raise to make up for the freeze. The board and superintendant should have settled fairly with the teachers 2 years ago. Instead, they are using the economy as a smoke screen for their fiscal mismanagement, laying their mistakes on the backs of teachers and spinning it to appear as if the cuts are the teachers fault. And the Sag Harbor taxpayers are buying it hook, line and sinker. The teachers proposed raise would amount to about $1.00 a month more in taxes for a family that owns a million dollar home. Remember, the Sag Harbor Schools are why your property values are high in the first place. A good education costs money. Sag Harbor residents are deluded if they think they pay high taxes. Taxes on a million dollar home in Roslyn are 18,000!! Sag Harbor taxes are around 7000 for a house of the same value. Wake up before you ruin your schools and decrease your property values. Unfortunately, it’s the kids who suffer, and they have no power. Put the responsibility for fiscal mismanagement where it lies…with the board and their hired gun – don’t make the kids suffer and the teachers take the blame.

  8. Consider This says:

    Well said!

  9. John Battle says:

    First of all, why do you both (and many others), insist on advocating your points of view anonymously? I suppose it is liberating to say things without any accountability but it also encourages a carelessness and abandonment of responsibility on the part of the writer.
    We are, all of us, facing a great challenge with our schools and wouldn’t it be better if each of us spoke openly and respectfully to one another?
    The ease with which the “masked” blogger voice can express anger, sarcasm, misinformation, resentment, etc. is so very detrimental and I wonder why Bryan does not require each of us to use our proper names! (Notice that he is slipping these mystery voices into the paper right under all the letters that have their required signatures! Very odd indeed.)
    Secondly, If you ask a teacher, I think that they will tell you that over these past two years, the terms of their last contract have remained in effect. My understanding is that they continue to get raises while the new contract is being negotiated. Though it may not be as high a raise as they are asking for at present, it has not been a freeze, as you say.
    Finally, I don’t care about the details with Roslyn. I brought them up because, despite their apparent ongoing contract dispute, they were able to come together and design a way forward that looks like it might protect their schools.
    Throwing insults and stirring up anger surely won’t help anyone work out a thoughtful plan of action where ALL of us must make some sacrifice to protect our schools going forward.

  10. Sad Employee says:

    I began working at Sag Harbor schools over 20 years ago. Sag Harbor School district did not have a good reputation. In fact, I didn’t always want to tell people where I worked. Over time, and due to great teachers and great administrators, Sag Harbor became a great school, one we can all be proud to work in. Don’t let 20 years of work end up in vain. It will cost money, but the students are worth it. They are our future. I want to be proud to say, “I work for Sag Harbor school district.”

  11. Consider This says:

    Not all teachers have continued to get the step increment. In fact many or most teachers beyond 20 years of service are frozen and would only get the percentage increase if a current contract was in place. For them, this is year two with no increase at all.
    In theory, one might be tempted to think that Sag Harbor could “come together” in the same manner that Rosyln has however the comparison is not apples to apples.
    With this in mind, the Roslyn details are important because the headline is quite misleading since their upcoming 6 month freeze can not be compared to Sag Harbor teachers taking a freeze for 2010/2011. Roslyn has enjoyed sizable increases each year since 2003 (remember, they were guaranteed to remain in the top three districts in Nassau). Each year from 2003-2008 their salary schedule was determined based on remaining the third highest ranked district in the county for pay.

  12. John Battle says:

    OK, So the senior teachers have seen “no increase at all” for the past two years but, happily, that fact applies to their health care costs as well, yes?
    We are living in a time of sky rocketing health care costs, wage reductions, hours cut back, pensions cut, businesses failing and jobs lost all over the country. I think they have much to be grateful for, all things considered.
    Roslyn Shmoslyn! Talk to me about how we can protect OUR schools. What do you propose we do, given the financial state we are in?
    WE HAVE TO COME TOGETHER SOON TO SOLVE THIS, LIKE IT OR NOT!
    If a freeze can be crafted to lower the School Budget increase and avoid going to a Contingency Budget, which will surely mean many lost jobs, shouldn’t all the school employees want this? The Teacher’s Union leadership must be weighing this question and I hope that they AND their membership understand the stakes. A 10% budget increase this year will likely fail. If they choose to refuse a freeze or some other plan of action that would cut or defer costs and lower this number, I am afraid “Sad Employee” will have plenty of company and those who lose their jobs will be even sadder!

  13. Lets add it up — unbudgeted pay increase for superintendent and his secretary ($35,000); unbudgeted new Spanish class ($25,000); the additional legal fees associated with the Board’s inability to settle a contract ($175,000 or more total); unbudgeted expenses for tuition outside the district for two years($600,000?); the board doing a lousy job negotiationing a contract leading to a fact finder slapping them in the face with recommemded teacher pay increases about 2% more than they budgeted for each of the last two years ($500,000?). That adds up to over $1.3 million. So you blame the teachers? You threaten austerity and elimination of jobs? Let the public decide whether they are willing to pay the true cost of quality education. Every district out there will either be putting out honest budgets with larger tax increases than the recent past due to higher costs and less aid and less carry over funds, or they will be putting out bogus budgets with phony minimal tax increases just putting off the inevitable.

  14. FROM 27 EAST WEBSITE ABOUT THE SPRINGS SCHOOL BUDGET:

    “After the district spent a session last week discussing the possibility of cutting jobs in order to keep the budget increase under 5 percent, Superintendent Michael Hartner said Monday night that he has been able to spare ?teachers by negotiating for three students from other districts who have special needs to attend the Springs School, increasing the district’s tuition income by $90,000. Two of those students are from the Sag Harbor School District and one had formerly attended the Child Development Center of the Hamptons.”

    Now there is another $60,000 I guess gets added to the budget in Sag Harbor. I’m sure the Sag Harbor Board will say this is a good deal for Sag Harbor. What it is is a great deal for Springs.

  15. Consider This says:

    A few things…
    -teachers do not reap the benefits of strong economic times so why should they take the hit in lean times.
    -the commmunity outcry should not be aimed at the teachers but at the fiscal mismanagement of the BOE. Springs and EH are putting out budgets in the 4% range with little or no impact to programs. In a December Express article it was reported that Dr. Gratto said Sag Harbor would end the school year with about a 600K fund balance and now it’s less than 100K. Where is the 1 million dollars that Dr.Gratto saved the district last year with his spending freezes, denial of conferences for teachers, and sharing of services (which he was rewarded for by the BOE by getting a nice 25K raise).
    - Dr. Gratto and the Springs super are buddies from way back…

  16. $100,000, $200,000 or $600,000 in surplus, does it make a difference? Surplus effects taxes not spending. Spending is spending regardless of what the surplus is. The vote in May is for spending not for tax rates. In fact you don’t even know what the tax rates will be until the towns property assesment figures come out during the summer. Spending is the issue. You either are willing to pay for programs or not. I would not rely on East Hampton as an example to compare because the 4.8% increase they are talking about at this point DOES NOT INCLUDE SALARIES AND BENEFITS. Once they include that big retirement fund increase, the big health insurance increase, and the salary increases, the 4.8% will quickly become about 8% minimum. So the question will be the same in East Hampton — are you willing to fund education? Savings are as good as long as theuy are not eaten up by program mandates that are unexpected, which has happened in Sag Harbor as in other districts. So, again, the question is, are you willing to pay for the quality education and treat everyone fairly in the process — teachers, assistants, support staff, the STUDENTS? Lack of a big surplus is nothing nore than an excuse to trim staff, which has been the real goal of some of the leaders on this Board for a number of years.

  17. I would like to clarify what I wrote above, after talking to a teacher friend in East Hampton. The teacher salary and benefit part of the East Hampton budget has not yet been presented in public. The impact of 18 teachers retiring in East Hampton has not been explained in terms of the net decrease in salaries, whether they are all being replaced or not and the net of the payouts vs. not replacing the teachers leaving. I do not think we want to minimize a spending increase in Sag Harbor by having 10 or 15 of our teachers retire and not replacing them, or replacing them with all inexperienced ower paid new employees.

  18. Mr. Sag says:

    Salaries and head count is the issue. Schools need to stay within line and the income (taxes) which are produced by the town. School spending is out of control. Everyone needs to feel the pain. Schools, Admin and Teachers. Senior teachers need to take a roll back or step aside for new teachers.

    The well is now dry for school districts.

  19. ateacher says:

    As a former student of the Sag Harbor SD and now a teacher myself, I find it sad that the Teacher’s Union and the School Board cannot come to an agreement. There are many teacher unions on Long Island that have worked with their districts to settle contracts that are reasonable. The Sag Harbor teachers need to open their eyes and realize that their demands are a little insane. Taxpayers really need to compare what these teacher’s want to what other districts give their teachers. Yes, Sag Harbor is a good school district but I think the teacher’s union needs to stop patting themsleves on the back and get with the times.

  20. Consider This says:

    Sag Harbor teachers have been trying to “get with the times” during the last several contracts by trying to get to median regarding salary when compared to surrounding districts. What “ateacher” is suggesting is JUST what TASH has been trying to accomplish…get what other comparable districts (agreed upon by TASH and BOE) are getting. On MOST grids of the salary scale teachers in Sag Harbor would make more money in East Hampton, Southampton, Amagansett, and more. Contact TASH if you would like to see the charts that were presented to the community in the past. If we are talking about “getting with the times”, maybe it’s the residents that need to get with the times….Sag Harbor residents have been enjoying top notch test scores and programs that surrounding schools can’t touch for much lower taxes than most Long Island district residents pay. This has been documented by TASH and by numerous Newsday articles. I challenge any Sag Harbor resident to compare their taxes to Springs, William Floyd, Sachem, etc. Don’t just compare your tax rate…compare the test scores and programs available to students in those districts…AND class size. Maybe it’s time that taxpayers “get with the times” if they want to continue to enjoy top notch test scores, Spanish and violin in the Elementary school, swimming programs, a large AP course selection, small class sizes with results supported by research, etc. It seems that there has been support by parents AND the BOE over the years to add more and more programs to the plate but when times get tough the teachers are the fall guys.

  21. double d says:

    I’m sorry you think your a “fall guy” for not getting a raise. My income dropped 30% last year. You haven’t a clue what it’s like to worry about a budget when you don’t know what you’ll make next year. It must be nice…….


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