By Annette Hinkle
If it’s spring, it must be budget season.
With that in mind, on Tuesday night members of the Noyac Civic Council received an in-depth look at the Sag Harbor School District’s proposed 2013/2014 budget courtesy of the district’s interim superintendent and its business manager.
Despite being offered a Power-Point explanation of exactly what taxpayers will be getting for their $35,508,622 ($32,739,375 of which will come directly from the tax levy), audience members still had plenty of questions — including one about why this budget in particular (and school budgets in general) only seem to go in one direction from year to year — and that is up.
Dr. Carl Bonuso, interim superintendent, opened the presentation by touting the district’s many achievements in the realm of academic excellence as well as the extra curricular activities of Sag Harbor students — from the Robotics Team and community fundraising efforts to involvement in arts and athletic programs.
“A good school system needs to show a return on investment,” began Dr. Bonuso. “Whatever you spend, you expect to get a pretty big bang for you buck.”
But, noted Dr. Bonuso, it’s also important the district be mindful of spending particularly when so much of the budget — 92.20 percent in fact in this proposed budget — is funded by taxpayers.
“Because of the size of our school, we have to be careful and fiscally responsible in what we provide,” he said. “Sometimes we share sports programs and send students elsewhere to be fiscally responsible.”
From that point on, it was an evening of numbers — full of terms like allowable tax cap, target or proposed tax cap and piercing of the tax cap — all in reference to the state’s 2 percent tax levy cap.
“The 2 percent tax cap is a misnomer and the information that has been put out there includes statements like ‘my taxes can only go up two percent a year,’” said John O’Keefe, the district’s business manager. “It’s not a property tax cap and it is typically not 2 percent.”
O’Keefe explains that districts start their budget cycle with things they can’t control. Most dramatic of which, he noted, are contractual and mandated expenses — this budget includes an 18.2 percent increase ($1.3 million) in benefits due for collective bargaining agreements made in the past.
“We’d have to reduce staff dramatically to lower that number,” explained O’Keefe who added the state does give relief when what the district must pay into the Teacher’s Retirement System or Employee’s Retirement Service increases by more than 2 percent.
“Last year, it was 11.84 percent. This year it’s 16.25 percent, so anytime the percentage increases more than 2 percent, whatever’s over that is an exclusion which helps ease the huge increase,” said O’Keefe noting the exclusion in the proposed budget is $403,746.
“We’re allowed to add that in because of the astronomical increase in the amount of contributions we need to make in the Teacher’s Retirement System,” he added.
O’Keefe noted with all the numbers in, the most the district can levy without piercing the cap in the 2013/2014 budget (which requires approval from a supermajority of voters) is $32,826,416.
“That’s a 4.06 percent increase,” noted O’Keefe who noted that the district can expect just over $1.5 million in state aid for next year — $100,000 more than last year and more than the district expected.
While the district will not pierced the cap with this proposed budget, Noyac resident James Ding took exception to the overall amount.
“No where is there a responsibility for reducing the 2013/2014 budget,” said Ding. “I don’t see any reduction — only a four percent increase. You’re touting all these wonderful programs, but you’re the numbers guy. Has anyone said, ‘No?’”
Dr. Bonuso responded by pointing out that mandated contractual obligations for current and retired employees make it difficult for districts to a budgets that are fiscally responsible while still serving students well. There are also several unfunded state mandates, he reminded the audience, such as implementation of the new Core Curriculum standards which were enacted this year and came with no additional funding.
“Of 100 budget lines, you’ll find 45 where there is a cut to what we did last year in our futile, but always passionate, desire to decrease certain lines,” said Dr. Bonuso. “I think we need to look where we can make cuts, but also find creative ways in building revenues.”
“But have you thrown back the budget to John [O’Keefe] and said, ‘No increase?” pressed Ding. “Have you said that?
“Many lines are minuses,” countered Dr. Bonuso. “As an aside, a month ago we told the district no more spending. If you haven’t spent it already this year you really don’t need it. You’re not getting those text books in May.”
“You have to struggle to find means of other expenses to get down to the tax cap,” said O’Keefe. “For example, there’s a reduction of $342,866 in pupil transportation.”
“That’s because you spent it on the buses,” said Ding referring to the district’s purchase of its own fleet last year to avoid the need to contract with a bus service.
“That will result in a savings of $1 million over 10 years,” said O’Keefe. “And it’s also given us more flexibility with transporting sports teams and our own extra curricular activities.”
Because human resources expenses dominate the budget — according to Dr. Bonuso, 70 percent goes toward salary and benefits — many in attendance asked if it was possible to reduce staffing.
“We need to continue to look at that,” said Dr. Bonuso. “Part of doing that is taking a close look at class size. Most classes are right around 20. In the beginning and end of year we need to look at what the game plan will be.”
“It’s very frustrating,” added school board member Chris Tice who was in attendance. “Some costs go up and we’re handcuffed. These schedules of increases have been around a long time. We’re trying to whittle away at it, but Albany is not giving the money to enact this.”
“It doesn’t give us many places to look,” added O’Keefe. “We’re almost 100 percent reliant on property taxes.”