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Sag School Board Approves $34 Million Budget

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By Claire Walla

Pulling no surprises, the Sag Harbor Board of Education voted on Monday, March 26 to approve the district’s proposed $34 million budget for the 2012-2013 school year.

“I want to thank the district for all its hard work,” said board member Chris Tice. Because this is the first year the district has had to make allowances for the state-imposed two-percent tax-levy cap, Tice said the budget process “was particularly rigorous this year.”

Passed by Congress last spring, tax cap legislation has caused most school districts across the state to search for ways of trimming expenditures—Sag Harbor not excluded.

With the rising cost of health insurance and increases for teachers’ retirement plans to contend with, the Sag Harbor School District ended up with a proposed budget up 2.88 percent from this year’s operating budget, which represents only a 1.94 percent tax-levy increase.

According to the district’s budget presentations, Sag Harbor has managed to maintain a budget that keeps all programs in place thanks to significant savings in several key areas.

According to numbers compiled by Dr. Lisa Scheffer, the district’s director of pupil personnel services, the special education department has shed nearly $500,000 in expenses, which is reflected in next year’s budget. The decrease is due to program changes, including the elimination this year of three staff members.

The school has also seen nearly $400,000 in savings from the district business office, as well as $60,000 in savings in transportation. While the budget calls for $500,000 of the district’s fund balance to be put toward energy conservation measures, District Superintendent Dr. John Gratto pointed out that there will be a bond measure tied to the budget vote in May that—if passed—is estimated to generate significant savings for the district.

Proposition #2 would allow the school to purchase six busses at a cost of $575,000. The district estimates that by bringing transportation costs in-house, it will be able to save roughly $170,000 over the next seven years.

However, while the district was able to squeeze the budget beneath the tax cap this year, school board member Walter Wilcoxen expressed some trepidation about the future.

“You’ve taken so much slack out of the budget it’s laudable,” he began. “But, down the road, how are we going to get the big nut? The problem is, I don’t’ see any major change coming. And that creates some discomfort.”

What Wilcoxen was referring to, specifically, were labor negotiations.

According to Verneuille, teachers’ retirement benefits have not yet been quantified for the coming school year, but last year health expenses went up 13.5 percent. And with a two-percent tax levy cap in the mix, expenditures will inevitably outpace revenues. In other words, the school will eventually be forced to look at ways of cutting costs more dramatically.

“You’re absolutely right, the driver of our budget is labor costs,” Dr. Gratto responded. But, he said the situation might not be so grim. Later that evening, the school board voted to approve bus-driver salaries, which had been negotiated down from its 3.5-percent raise this year to a two-percent raise for next year, with no step increases.

“I think what you’re seeing is a trend,” Gratto added.

Though good news, board members seemed to sympathize with Wilcoxen’s less-than-enthusiastic response.

“This is sort of like the fly on the tail of an elephant,” he joked. “But, at least it’s a start.”

The budget vote will be Tuesday, May 15 from 7 to 9 p.m. in the Pierson High School Gym. Should the budget not pass by simple majority, the district would go to its contingency budget, which would strip $551,510 from the proposed budget, which—according to the district—would eliminate the $500,000 set aside for building improvement projects off-the-bat.