By Tessa Raebeck
The Bridgehampton School District appears to be in “much better financial shape this year than last year, according to business administrator Robert Hauser, as the school board on Thursday, January 29, took its first look at a preliminary $12.6 million budget for the 2015-16 school year.
The first draft represents an increase of nearly $330,000, or 2.67 percent, over last year’s budget.
“Fortunately, this year, things look a lot better than they did last year,” Mr. Hauser told the board.
Last spring, the school board had difficulty getting the current year’s $12.3 million budget passed. That spending plan pierced the state-mandated tax cap with an 8.8-percent increase over the previous year. It failed to receive the required 60-percent supermajority in the first vote in May, then barely passed when 62 percent of voters supported it in a second and final ballot in June.
The state-mandated limit, which determines how much a district can increase its property tax levy from one year to the next, is known as the 2-percent tax cap, but the percentage actually varies based on the Consumer Price Index. This year, at 1.62 percent, the cap will again be lower than its name.
“So, we’re only allowed to collect, in a sense, 1.62 percent more from the residents here,” explained Mr. Hauser. “However, the spending is going up 2.67 percent. So…the spending’s going up more than the actual amount we’re allowed to collect.”
The first draft of Bridgehampton’s current budget, presented last winter, breached the cap by over $1 million; the 2014-15 draft is over the cap by about $106,000, Mr. Hauser said.
Many of the included expenses are mandated by the state, such as Common Core-related professional development for teachers, fingerprinting for all new staff, and nearly $7,000 for “records management,” as school district payroll reports must be maintained for 50 years.
New items in the 2015-16 budget include adding iPads, Google Chromebooks and other technology updates as part of the district’s 5-year plan, a base increase in social security tax for employees, which the school district must match, and increased building maintenance.
During last year’s cutting of the current budget, the school board chose to reduce the number of days the Homework Club was offered after school to cut costs. Mr. Hauser said the school intends to restore those hours for the next school year.
An increase of $24,734, slated for adding a high school girls volleyball team and purchasing new volleyball equipment, is included in the proposed athletics budget, which is about $150,000 in total.
Health benefits for retirees and full-time employees are expected to increase by almost $100,000 to over $1.5 million, Mr. Hauser said. Most of that expense is for vision, dental and health benefits for full-time employees, as Medicare primarily covers retirees. Under the new Affordable Care Act, the district must provide health benefits to any employees who work more than 30 hours a week.
Some components of the budget, such as salaries determined by unsettled teachers and administrative contracts, insurance costs, and revenue from state aid, are not yet finalized. In a move that is unprecedented in the last 40 years, Governor Andrew Cuomo will not be releasing the amount of aid he is proposing for New York’s schools to the school districts ahead of time.
On January 21, in his State of the State address, Governor Cuomo said he would grant an additional $1.1 billion, or 4.8 percent, to New York’s schools only if the Legislature passes several of his proposed educational reforms. If the Legislature, divided between a Democratic Assembly and a Republican Senate, does not comply, the governor threatened to limit that increase to 1.7 percent.
“In the meantime, we’re all in limbo here, because we don’t know how much aid he’s proposing to give us as a base,” Mr. Hauser said Thursday.
One of Governor Cuomo’s conditions is another overhaul of the recently revamped teacher evaluation systems, so that student test scores account for more of a teacher’s rating. Others include making it harder for teachers to get tenure and easier for them to be fired, establishing more charter schools, which would be required to take less advantaged students, and sending specialists in to transform failing schools.
The final numbers for the state’s $23.1 billion education budget will be revealed in the legislative budget on April 1. School districts, however, are required to tell the state comptroller’s office whether or not they will try to pierce the tax cap a month beforehand, by March 1.
Mr. Hauser said Bridgehampton, which generally gets about 5 percent of its revenue from state aid, relies less on the governor’s budget than other districts, and the budget wouldn’t be drastically affected should the legislature fail to comply with the governor’s demands.