by Marissa Maier
With barely two weeks left before the Sag Harbor community votes on the school budget, an anonymous group of parents, who have dubbed themselves “The Reality Bandwagon,” have penned and distributed fliers around town critiquing the teacher’s union.
“What do you want to say to TASH?” asks one handout. “Vote May 18th. Pierson Gym,” it continues.
For many district residents, the 2010-2011 budget vote scheduled for May 18 is no longer about casting an aye or nay ballot for the proposed fiscal plan. Instead, those disgruntled by the portion of the budget devoted to salary increases, retirement contributions, and health benefit payments — coupled with ongoing negotiations for the teachers’ contract and a staff-wide raise freeze — see the vote as a way to express their dissatisfaction with TASH.
“The vote could go down because of unhappiness,” community member Nada Berry remarked at a budget forum held on Monday evening. School superintendent Dr. John Gratto and school business official Janet Verneuille had wrapped up a presentation on the spending plan for next school year moments before.
“People feel powerless,” resident Alexandra Eames noted. “Different aspects of the system are not functioning as well as they should be. I felt the only way I could voice my feelings is through the vote.”
Eames joined a few other locals who attended the meeting and are worried about their escalating taxes, not only school tariffs but town taxes as well. The tax rate levy increase for the $31.5 million budget is proposed at 10.16 percent for East Hampton town residents and 12.79 percent for Southampton residents.
“People are sensitized [right now]. I look at my food bill. The economy has left everyone a little raw and it affects everyone psychologically,” Eames added.
Verneuille noted the pension system is out of the school’s hands as the state determines the district’s contribution rate. The pension system is also dependent upon the health of the stock market. Next year, the school expects to pay $1,616,500 in retirement contributions for all school employees, representing an increase of $418,919 over last year’s budget.
“I live in the community and I am a taxpayer. It may make people feel better to say ‘no’ but voting down the budget won’t change these problems,” Verneuille said.
In a later interview, she noted that the school can cut costs for health benefits if the board negotiates the ability to offer a variety of medical insurance plans to teachers. The school expects to pay $3,023,000 on health and dental insurance next year accounting for an increase of $351,539. This is coupled with increases for salaries of around $927,850, which will bring total salary expense to $17,329,665. The retirement contributions, insurance payments, and salary benefits account for the three major increases in the 2010-2011 budget, said Verneuille. She added that approximately 75 to 80 percent of the budget covers staffing costs, though she noted “this makes sense when your product is the students.”
The board is hoping each school employee, including custodians, administrators and teaching assistants, will agree to forgo raises, and step increases for the teachers, for the next school year. The measure will likely save the school roughly $1.1 million. Dr. Gratto said on Monday that the school’s attorney is still in the midst of discussing the idea with the bargaining unit’s representative, who represents the teachers along with the other school employee unions.
Some members of the community are infuriated that the teacher’s haven’t led the way in agreeing to the wage freeze. The Reality Bandwagon highlighted articles in other publications discussing how educators across New York State — in districts like Brentwood and Roslyn — agreed to hold their raises in order to save positions. School board member Mary Anne Miller was in the audience on Monday evening and was careful to point out that some of these agreements hinged upon the fact that theses raises would be paid retroactively in the coming school years.
“I think the discussion tonight speaks to everyone’s concern about the sustainability of the school … Any other school board that makes a deal in a month isn’t looking outside the box or trying to change the culture,” she added. “[But] I don’t think the vote should be a statement on the impasse. Let the board deal with that.”
PTSA president Colleen Grigonis however expressed concerns that if the budget fails on May 18, it will only hurt the students. The board has the opportunity to put up the budget for a vote two times. If both votes fail, the board will have to adopt a contingency budget, meaning an additional $1,649,790 would need to be shaved off the $31.5 million budget.
“I think everyone sees their vote as a statement,” Grigonis said in a later interview. “My core group, we are all affected by the economy. It is hard for my husband and me [to pay the increase] but we think it is worth it for education … We are all worried whether [the budget] is going to pass.”