n the weeks leading up to the 2009 school board elections and budget vote, Sag Harbor lawns were littered with campaign materials for the four school board candidates. Compared to the school board race, the budget with a roughly four percent tax levy increase received less fanfare.
A year later, the school board race is uncontested and the eyes of the community are focused instead on the 2010-2011 budget. From parent groups and student organizations to union associations and members of the board, many groups involved in the Sag Harbor school district have been working to “get out the vote” on what appears to be a divisive budget.
The process of formulating the budget has been a contentious one and the end product is a $31,500,811 spending plan for next year. At a school board meeting Monday, school superintendent Dr. John Gratto reiterated that the proposed tax levy increase is 10.16 percent for East Hampton Town residents and 12.79 percent for Southampton residents. Despite trimming $1.8 million in proposed and existing spending, the spending increase for the proposed budget is 6.28 percent or $1,860,154.
School board member Mary Anne Miller said as a matter of policy, the board cannot adopt an official opinion on the budget, but as an individual she supports the spending plan and has encouraged community members to turn out for the vote. She noted though, that she has been hearing throughout the community the divisive nature of this year’s budget with even a few people opting to sit out this budget vote altogether.
At Monday’s meeting, resident Robert Cleary noted that many voters are facing the dilemma of wanting to vote down the budget as a statement against contractual salary and benefit increases for teachers, while knowing that further cuts to the budget would only effect the students.
“This really is about the students and voting ‘no’ won’t change what is happening with the teachers and the board,” PTSA President Colleen Grigonis remarked. “I am still scared that it is either this vote or contingency.”
During a later interview, Dr. Gratto reported that the board has yet to decide upon a second budget and is waiting until after the results of the first budget vote come in to have that discussion.
In conjunction with the PTA, Grigonis has been working on radio and prints ads, and will run a phone bank to stimulate voter turn out.
Members of Save Our School (SOS), a student run organization, have been handing out fliers with budget information in many neighborhoods, said Lindsay Cox, an SOS organizer. She added that SOS members are working with the PTSA on the radio ad. Fellow SOS member Sophie Parker noted that students are encouraging young Pierson graduates to vote.
Dr. Gratto has given the budget presentation 11 different times, excluding at board of education meetings. Teacher union leader Eileen Kochanasz added that the newly formed CAST association, made up of all the district’s bargaining units, have sent out two mailings to district families in support of the budget and financially contributed to the PTA and the PTSA.
This year, the board is looking to qualify the vote by conducting an anonymous exit survey. After voters leave the gymnasium, where voting will be held, they will be given a series of questions on why they voted for or against the budget. Dr. Gratto presented a preliminary survey on Monday, but many community members felt the questions were suggestive and should be more open ended. The board agreed to tweak the survey before Tuesday’s vote.
Miller noted, however, that a large voter turn out will accurately portray how the majority of the community feels about the proposed budget. Of the 5,339 registered voters in the Sag Harbor school district, only 1,802 voted on last year’s budget, though this was seen as a high voter turn out. Miller is hoping that at least 1,500 votes will be cast this year.
Dr. Gratto also noted that the board plans to meet with TASH Monday to continue talks on formulating a new contract and the proposed salary freeze for all district employees next year.
The 2010-2011 budget vote will be held in the Pierson gymnasium on Tuesday, May 18, from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.
To view the full budget presentation and the monetary impact on taxpayers visit the school’s website at http://www.sagharborschools.org/?q=node/2.