By Tessa Raebeck
After managing a budget of just under $100 million, a staff of about 900 and seven separate school buildings, school business official Jennifer Buscemi is grateful to be coming to Sag Harbor.
The Sag Harbor Board of Education wasted little time in appointing Ms. Buscemi on July 28 to the school business administrator position vacated by John O’Keefe in early July. She comes to Sag Harbor from the West Babylon School District, where she served as executive director for finance and operations for nearly three years.
“I was basically looking for a change,” Ms. Buscemi said in a phone interview on Tuesday, August 5.
With about 4,200 students, a $99.3 million budget and a payroll of about 900 full- and part-time employees, West Babylon is a “fairly large school district,” she said—and monstrous when compared to those on the East End.
Sag Harbor, in turn, has about 1,000 students and, at $36.8 million, this year’s operating budget is slightly over a third of the size of West Babylon’s.
“There were many projects and many things that I wanted to accomplish over the years at my other school district that I just couldn’t move forward on, because there was just so much to do… I spent a lot of time constantly putting out fires,” Ms. Buscemi said of her previous position. “So, I was really looking for something on a smaller scale, so that I would be able to go ahead and move forward on those projects that I’ve always been thinking of doing.”
Once settled in Sag Harbor, Ms. Buscemi hopes to spend time looking at programs and doing “a lot of cost-benefit analysis,” as well as finding new sources of revenue.
“These are all the things that I want to sort of delve into, but I could never do that in such a large school district. So, I’m hoping to be able to get to do that here in Sag Harbor,” she said.
Attracted to the village’s “small town feel” and the options it affords her professionally, she plans on moving to the East End once her husband, Frank, retires, which he’s planning on doing sometime in the next one to three years.
Ms. Buscemi received her bachelor’s degree, with a major in accounting and a minor in economics, from Queens College in Flushing. She went on to Dowling College in Oakdale, where she earned a master of business administration degree in Public Management, and advanced certificates in Human Resource Management and School District Business Administration.
Prior to joining the West Babylon School District in 2011, she worked as an intern in the business office of the Commack Union Free School District for a year in order to fulfill advanced certificate requirements.
This past May in West Babylon, the district attempted to pierce the state-mandated 2-percent tax levy cap.
“We tried to pierce the tax cap because we didn’t want to make drastic cuts to programs and that’s what we were faced with,” Ms. Buscemi said of the decision. “The board wanted to move forward with trying to pierce it, but because of the property tax rate this year, I think a lot of voters came out and, unfortunately, the budget got voted down.”
With 51.3-percent voter approval, the district was shy of the 60-percent supermajority required to pierce the cap.
“So, what we did,” she explained, “was we revised the budget. We did end up reducing some programs, but from out of nowhere [State Senator Phil Boyle] was able to find $125,000 for us to restore those programs. So, we were able to go into the June 17 vote with a reduced budget that was within the cap and everyone was eligible for their property tax rebate check at that point.
On its second go-round, West Babylon’s budget passed with over 70-percent voter approval.
Although Sag Harbor has not yet had to ask voters to pierce the cap, Ms. Buscemi believes the tax cap will continue to be a challenge for all of New York’s school districts.
“I think every district is just going to have to rethink the way they’re providing programs at this point. [Governor Andrew Cuomo] wants us to find efficiencies and cost savings and be able to share services. So, eventually…we’re going to have to move in that direction,” she said.
Aside from size, another significant difference between Sag Harbor and West Babylon is the extent of state aid given to the districts.
“In my previous district, we relied very heavily on state aid, so whenever the governor’s budget came out, whenever the governor’s proposal came out, it was a real defining moment for us during the budget process, because if we did not get a decent increase in state aid, we were done,” Ms. Buscemi said.
“So, I have to say,” she continued, “in Sag Harbor, what is unique is that we don’t rely on state aid as much; I think less than 5 percent of our budget is funded through state aid… It’s a real community school, because the funding comes 100 percent pretty much—95 percent—from the tax levy.”
Unlike most school districts, especially those up-island (East End school districts have historically received less state aid than others on Long Island because of their high property values), Sag Harbor taxpayers bear most of the financial burden. Although this can be tough on residents, it means the district doesn’t have to deal with the unpredictability of being supported primarily by the state.
“They have to deal with fluctuations in state aid and when state aid does go down, that could mean drastic reductions,” explained Ms. Buscemi.
A self-described “numbers person,” Ms. Buscemi first gained administrative and financial management experience in state government. She was part of the management team at the New York State Comptroller’s Office and worked as a tax auditor for the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance.
“I’m very, very analytical, so I love the fact that I’m doing something that is very rewarding,” she said. “Because, ultimately, we’re benefitting students; we’re providing really great educational opportunities and programs, and I know that whatever I do in all of my work on a daily basis is contributing to that.”
“When I worked as a state auditor,” she continued, “the job just was not as rewarding as [working in schools]. It was sort of like a thankless job. No one ever liked us coming in, no one ever liked us leaving, no one was happy to hear from us.”
“But when you work for a school district as a business official,” she continued, “every single thing you do is contributing to the benefit of the students, which is really great. So, at the end of the day, you feel like you actually did something wonderful and accomplished something.”