By Tessa Raebeck
A month before the entire 2015-16 budget is to be reviewed, Sag Harbor School District administrators presented technology, debt service, employee benefits and transportation components to the board of education on Monday.
With “no additional items that we haven’t had in previous budgets,” according to Technology Director Scott Fisher, the technology budget is proposed at slightly over $1 million, up by nearly 12 percent from the 2014-15 budget, which was just above $932,000.
“As you all know,” Mr. Fisher told the board, “the role of technology has expanded here exponentially in the past years…essentially everybody in the district is somehow impacted by the technology support.”
The technology department is looking to bring in additional support staff and to continue its upgrading, replenishment and purchasing of computer and wireless systems and supplies. Proposed increases of $18,650 at the Sag Harbor Elementary School and $15,200 at Pierson Middle/High School will account for the purchase of additional laptops and Chromebooks, low-cost computers that are popular in classrooms.
The transportation budget, computed by School Business Administrator Jennifer Buscemi and Head Bus Driver Maude Stephens, who was not at Monday’s meeting, would increase by just about $51,000, or 6.83 percent, to about $802,000, due in large part to a proposed bus purchase.
“Right now, all of our buses are being utilized and we don’t even have a spare bus,” said Ms. Buscemi, adding that the state Education Department recommends school districts have at least one spare.
Buying a new large bus would cost the district $102,000 up front. Another option, Ms. Buscemi said, would be to finance the bus over a 10-year period, a decision that would require the district to budget $13,000 a year for the next decade. School buses have an expected life of about 15 years, she added.
Chris Tice, vice president of the school board, said it would be practical to finance the bus purchase due to low interest rates and because “we have such a phenomenal bond rating,” as Moody’s Investors Service upgraded the district’s bond rating from A1 to Aa3 last May.
The employee benefits component of the budget, an area that usually shows large, unavoidable increases, is actually expected to decrease for the 2015-16 school year, due to a reduction in the percentage school districts must contribute to retirement costs.
The Teacher’s Retirement System (TRS) is recommending an employer contribution rate of about 13 percent for the 2015-16 school year, while that rate was much higher, at over 17 percent, for this school year, 2014-15. The employees are not receiving less in benefits, due to the change, rather, school districts are being required to contribute a smaller amount needed for the system to be able to pay out the required amount in benefits.
“That reduction of $518,000 is going to eat up a lot of the increases in the other areas,” Ms. Buscemi said, adding, “This is probably the first time in a long time that you’re going to see a decrease in that employee benefit and I’m hoping that that continues.”
The total projected employee benefits budget for next year is around $9.3 million, a decrease of $128,125, or 1.35 percent, from this year’s budget.
The debt services budget is also proposed to decrease, going down by about $29,000, or 2.48 percent, to a projected total of over $1.5 million. That projection is in part based on historically low interest rates.
With many of the rates needed to compute the budget not yet available, Ms. Buscemi had to estimate on some of the budget items, usually anticipating an increase of 3 percent.
“There are definitely areas here—that I’ve gone through in the past budget workshops and today—that we could cut if we had to,” Ms. Buscemi said, using the proposed school bus purchase as an example.
The preliminary numbers, Ms. Buscemi told the board, suggest the school district is in a very good position for the budget season and will “be able to maintain everything this year.”
The state aid numbers, which show New York’s school districts how much money they can expect from the state, have still not been released by Governor Andrew Cuomo and are expected to remain in political limbo for some time. The governor has said he will not release his education budget until the divided State Legislature approves all of his proposed educational reforms, many of which are controversial.