By Claire Walla
Instead of eyeing efforts to pierce the state’s new tax-cap policy, the Sag Harbor School District is hoping to avoid it altogether.
At a budget hearing last Monday, February 6, the district’s superintendent, Dr. John Gratto, revealed a proposed budget for the 2012-2013 school year that came out at $34,182,256, an increase of just barely $1 million over this year’s operating budget.
While it represents a total spending increase of 2.88 percent, Janet Verneuille, the school district’s director of business operations, estimated that this budget figure only accounts for a 1.94 percent tax-levy increase. By comparison, this year’s operating budget represents a tax-levy increase of 5.48 percent.
“I can’t say for sure that we’re within the tax cap, but I’m about 90 percent sure,” Dr. Gratto told the board.
While Verneuille said she is still waiting for the final details on the tax levy legislation from Albany and cannot officially calculate what effect it will have on the district budget until then, her current estimates have the school’s proposed budget coming in under the cap by just about $30,000.
Should this scenario remain true after the school crunches its final budget numbers, the school district’s budget will only need to be approved by a majority of voters in order to be adopted.
(If the school should present a budget that surpasses the state’s tax-levy cap, the district would need a supermajority of all votes — at least 60 percent — to be able to pierce the cap.)
Dr. Gratto made sure to point out that the school’s efforts to keep the budget under the projected tax-levy cap do not involve any cuts to teaching staff, sports teams, elective classes or after-school clubs. They do, however, provide plans for taking $500,000 out of the school’s current fund balance to use for capital projects.
“Using your fund balance is like using your savings,” Dr. Gratto explained. “But we think that we can replicate this [revenue] next year.”
According to Verneuille, the district will end the current school year with a savings of roughly $800,000. About $60,000 is attributed to transportation savings, $467,000 comes from savings in the special education sector, and the business office secured another $267,000 in savings through several measures, including putting internal controls on staff overtime and refinancing the 2002 bond issue.
Verneuille said the school finally reached a fund balance at the end of last year that represented 3.96 percent of the school’s overall expenses (the state recommends 4 percent).
But, Verneuille added that the district could see more savings over the coming years if voters elect to purchase six more buses for the school district.
“I’m optimistic that, if the bus proposition passes, it will have to help us,” Verneuille stated.
By eliminating contractual expenses for transportation, she estimated the district could save $45,000 next year alone, and roughly $600,000 in the next seven years.
“This year is easy, in some ways, because we can look at every category and say where we can make changes,” Verneuille continued.
She added that every budget code, in her opinion, has been scrutinized by every administrator.
“But, at some point you’re going to be getting the best price for every purchase. At some point there’s going to be no more savings unless you move [to cut] different categories.”
At this point, Dr. Gratto said the school district is very lucky that it hasn’t had to make any cuts to personnel.
He referenced slides showing how the school’s expenditures balance out. According to the proposed budget outline, 78 percent of the school’s funds will go toward educational programs, versus 9 percent for administrative needs and 13 percent for capital projects. And of those program expenses, 63 percent of the budget is dedicated to regular K-12 instruction and special education.
“Direct instruction and support instruction are the two [line items] that matter most,” he said. “We’re very fortunate that we’ve been able to leave those untouched.”