By Amy Patton
The 2013-2014 tentative operating budget of $35,408,622 was unveiled in its entirety for the first time Thursday night by the Sag Harbor School Board during its final budget workshop at the Pierson Middle-High School library.
School district business administrator John O’Keefe said it would result in a modest increase in the tax levy, with an overall 3.83 percent increase — or $1,226,336 — over last year’s spending plan.
“Obviously, by looking at the numbers, you can see that there haven’t been any drastic changes to expenditures,” he said.
This, school board members emphasized, was accomplished in spite of increases in mandated health care and retirement costs, which in total are estimated to cost $8,806,698 in the 2013-2014 tentative budget.
A slightly larger slice of the pie is general education costs such as teachers’ salaries and other staff, which will cost $13,075,380, or 37 percent of the proposed 2013-2014 budget.
O’Keefe explained that the proposed increase in the entire budget would work out to about $8 in additional property tax a month for a home valued at $500,000 in the district, or $96 annually. In 2012-2013, that number was $4.04 monthly for a comparably valued home. However, he pointed out, that latter amount is based on the increase in the tax levy for this year and is not directly related to the school’s operating costs.
Some in attendance at Thursday’s meeting questioned the 50 percent rise in payouts into the school district employees retirement system over last year’s budget.
“What is the rationale behind that?” queried one parent.
“It’s a big piece,” admitted O’Keefe. But, he added, “That number is set by the state. They are telling us that they’re still trying to recover the funds lost in the stock market crash. The monies that the retirement fund lost when the market collapsed, the state is still trying to recoup. Unfortunately as a school we don’t have any control over that.”
Other expenditures laid out in the 15-page tentative spending plan include $3.85 million earmarked for capital projects and facility maintenance. Additional costs such as transportation, school administration and technology are proposed at $6,046,545 or 17 percent of the total budget.
Dr. Carl Bonuso, interim superintendent, said he’s been “pleased” so far with the 2013-2014 budget’s progress and that it was “collaboratively developed” with the local community’s educational needs at the forefront.
“It’s fiscally prudent and instructionally sound,” he said at Thursday’s board meeting. “We have a 4.06 percent allowable tax cap but we will be coming in even under that. We do think that we’ve been very thoughtful in our deliberations. We’re not eliminating staff, we’re not eliminating programs and I think [the proposed budget] shows our efforts at careful short-term and long-term planning for the district.”
In spite of the board’s confidence in the new budget plan however, the presentation still had some parents scratching their heads as to its effect on local taxes and how that money is eventually distributed throughout the school system.
Allison Scanlon, a parent with three children in the district, expressed concerns about the spending related to school employees’ health benefits, as did many other parents at Thursday’s meeting,.
“The board is kind of glossing over the fact that we have to pay some pretty big increases in health and dental benefits,” said Scanlon. “And the attitude seems to be almost, ‘Well, there’s not a whole lot we can do about that.’ I’d like to see some time put in before the budget is passed to see what alternative health care choices are out there, maybe more competitive choices for the staff. There may be some savings there. You can’t just do that a month before a budget is set to be adopted. You have to work on that all year long.”
Scanlon said “sharing services” with nearby districts such as athletic fields and resources like transportation have already cut further costs from the budget and ease the burden on taxpayers.
After the meeting, board member Mary Anne Miller said while she was pleased with some aspects of the proposed plan, she believed the tentative budget could be tweaked between now and the date by which the board must adopt the budget — April 26.
“I’d like to have some more time with it. I would appreciate another run-through or two of some of the items that we can still control and that the district could possibly benefit from,” she said on Monday.
According to the district’s calendar, the next Sag Harbor School Board meeting will be held on Monday, April 8 with an executive session scheduled for 6 p.m. followed by the regular meeting at 7:30 p.m.
The district wide vote on the budget and trustee election will be held on Tuesday, May 21 in the Pierson Middle High School gym. As the district is not proposing to pierce the tax cap, the budget needs just a simple majority, 50 percent plus one, to be approved.
Four school board seats also hang in the balance. Board members Chris Tice and Ed Drohan are up for re-election, as is the seat of Sue Kinsella. Kinsella was appointed to fill the term of Walter Wilcoxen, who resigned from the board last summer. The term of Gregg Schiavoni, who resigned from the board earlier this month, will also be filled in May’s election.