Noyac Takes Whack at School Spending

Posted on 12 March 2009

Members of the Noyac Civic Council had home court advantage on Tuesday evening as they welcomed Sag Harbor Schools Superintendent Dr. John Gratto to their monthly meting. For more than a year the council has been sending representatives to school board meetings at Pierson High School, to keep an eye on school spending and program development. In past council meetings, members have been critical of spending at the school, and that criticism has become sharper as the national economy sours.

On Tuesday, Gratto offered a brief overview of the district’s proposed $29.5 million budget, which he maintains strikes a balance between economy and providing excellent programs, without making staff cuts.

Still, he said, he sometimes feels “like an umpire.”

“Some people say, ‘you jerk,’ others say ‘good job,” the superintendent observed.

The spending plan will be about 3.3 percent higher than last year. Driving increases, Gratto said, were such things as improvements to the auditorium, including a $40,000 curtain, to and additional $800,000 in teachers salaries. Offsetting some of the expense will be savings the district has found, including buying a bus and van to reduce contract transportation costs, instituting a new dental insurance plan and not replacing staff vacancies.

Most in the audience were concerned about ways the district can conserve money. Nada Barry asked how far the district would go to consolidate or share services with other districts.

“As far as consolidation goes, not very far,” Gratto replied. “There doesn’t seem to be much interest in the communities.”

But, he said, he would be pursuing more shared services, especially with Bridgehampton.

One of the most heard criticisms has been a perceived low teacher-to-student ratio in the schools. Ralph DeSpigna commented he believed it to be about nine students to one teacher.

“If you just look at the numbers, they don’t tell the whole story,” said Gratto. He said there were some classes that may have as few as six students in a class; but, he said, the staff numbers also include personnel such as guidance counselors and therapists, which, if considered as classroom teachers, would skew the numbers.

Gratto added that special education classes also require a low student-to-teacher ratio, and noted that requirements for special ed are much different than they were years ago, with many more students being classified.

“I graduated high school in 1972 from a school that had 800 students, with only one class of eight special ed students,” said Gratto.

“We had special training too, when I was young,” said DeSpigna, “and we survived.”

“The question is, ‘are we overstaffed’,” Gratto asked rhetorically. “We need a balance. It is to everybody’s best interest that we maintain a high quality job of educating our students.”

John Anderson wondered why it appeared Sag Harbor had one of the highest costs  per student.

“There are two things that drive the cost per pupil,” answered Gratto. One, he said was the economies of scale.

“We could easily put another three or four students in each classroom and not increase the need for teachers,” he said, “which would reduce our cost per student.”

“Another reason is the richness of our programs,” Gratto added. “We offer what the community has historically said they wanted.”

Jim Moran touched on one other hot button issue: “What are teachers looking for in increases?”

“Teachers are proposing a 3.9 percent increase, plus step, which is about another 2.7 percent,” said Gratto. “The board has proposed 2.5 percent, plus step.”

Moran said his niece is a teacher in the New York City school system, and after 12 years makes $70,000. “That’s nowhere near what teachers here get,” he claimed.

“And your teachers are not working in the South Bronx,” DeSpigna said to Gratto. “Send their teachers here, and our teachers there and you’ll get the same results.”

One audience member observed: “You offer the teachers over 23.5% compounded over three years. They want over 27%. In this economy…”

Later in the meeting, Jim Kinnier, a teacher and negotiator for the Teachers Association of Sag Harbor, stressed the importance of offering competitive salaries.

“We need to hire highly qualified teachers to the district,” Kinier said. “I’m fortunate to have bought a house here 14 years ago. It’s not possible for teachers to buy a house in this community.”

Kinnier also argued the request Sag Harbor teachers are making is not much different from other districts.

East Hampton, he said, will be paying 4 percent on top of step, and Southampton is paying 3.5 percent on top of step. Middle Island district, he said, also recently settled for a 3.5% increase.

“We need to have competitive salaries,” concluded Kinnier.

Genevieve Smith asked if the budget amount would increase if the teachers’ contract settlement was higher than anticipated in the current proposed spending plan.

“I would not recommend the board increase the spending,” said Gratto. “It would probably require a cut in staff or programs.” 

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