“I have a terrific job … but sometimes I feel like an umpire,” said Sag Harbor School District Superintendent Dr. John Gratto, as he spoke to a mixed audience at a CONPOSH (Coalition of Neighborhoods for the Preservation of Sag Harbor) meeting in the basement of the Old Whalers’ Church last Sunday.
In addition to CONPOSH members, among the attendees were members from the Sag Harbor Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC), Sag Harbor Village mayoral candidate Mike Bromberg and school board candidates Elena Loreto, Walter Wilcoxen, Gregg Schiavoni and Edward Drohan. The purpose of the meeting, however, was a specific one: to discuss the 2009-2010 school budget, which is up for a vote on May 19.
When crafting a budget, Gratto said it is all a balancing act. He noted that while some parents, for example, would like to see a completely new auditorium constructed at Pierson, other taxpayers wonder why more drastic cuts weren’t made to the budget this year.
“The question isn’t the cost per student. The question is: Is the school district providing the programs the community wants in the most cost effective manner,” said Gratto. “We need to realize one extreme or the other doesn’t serve the community well. We can’t have an abundance of programs … [nor] can we cut the tax rate down as much as [some] people want … I feel like the steward of taxpayer dollars and I take that responsibility seriously.”
Since taking office last year, Gratto said he has strived to maintain the school’s academic rigor while creating economic efficiencies. Last September, Gratto saved the school district around $310,000 by consolidating three business positions into two, combining the athletic director and head of buildings and grounds positions, eliminating and renegotiating special education contracts, reducing BOCES services and switching telephone providers. Gratto built-in almost $700,000 in cost saving measures for the 2009-2010 budget. These steps include cutting purchased BOCES services by $278,825, reducing discretionary spending by $151,111, purchasing a bus and van resulting in $126,549 of savings and decreasing dental insurance costs by $17,899.
The 2009-2010 school budget is around $29 million. The taxpayer’s portion of this sum, Gratto reported, will be slightly offset by additional federal monies. He said the school district will receive $141,594 in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds to help renovate the auditorium, though the total project is budgeted at $195,000.
This extra federal support, he explained, will help lower the tax rate increase from 4.35 percent to 3.79 percent for residents on the Southampton side of the school district and from 4.33 percent to 3.77 percent for those on the East Hampton side of the village.
Members of the audience questioned the budget increases incurred by teacher and teaching assistant salaries as well as monies set aside for teacher’s retirements. Sheila Goldberg, a retired educator and Sag Harbor resident, countered these concerns.
“A lot of people get angry about taxes before the budget,” she said and added that the school budget remains one of the only financial plans the public is allowed to vote on. Goldberg mentioned the state legislature is exploring enacting a tax cap on school district tax levies or creating a “circuit-breaker” on property taxes.
If the tax cap was enacted this year, the cap would be set at 4 percent said Gratto. The “circuit-breaker” would effectively cap an individual’s property taxes. The cap would be based on the taxpayer’s annual income. Although these ideas are being bounced around in the state legislature, Gratto said they are years away from implementation.
In the here and now, Gratto is looking for other ways to save costs for taxpayers and improve programs. He said the district is courting the idea of creating a joint pre-kindergarten program with the Bridgehampton School District, which already has an active pre-k course. Elementary school principal Joan Frisicano has already discussed the concept with Bridgehampton superintendent Dr. Dianne Youngblood and delivered a cursory presentation on the idea at the Wednesday Board of Education meeting.
Gratto believes the school can absorb an additional 20 to 25 students without increasing staff or incurring additional costs. With some parents feeling the pinch of the Ross School’s $30,000 annual price tag for high school, Pierson could soon be opening its doors to more out-of-district students.