By Emily J. Weitz
At last Wednesday’s meeting of the Sag Harbor School Board, where the 2012-2013 budget was supposed to be finalized, a lot was accomplished and much more was discussed. However, a decision on the budget was not among the tasks checked off.
“In all the conversations with business administrators in Albany over the last month,” said Director of Business Operations Janet Verneuille, “the rules have been changing, so they recommended we wait until the next meeting [to finalize the budget].”
Verneuille’s not worried about holding off, though, because she said, “We were early anyway.”
In the meantime, a detailed breakdown of the proposed $34,182,256 budget was presented by Verneuille and Dr. John Gratto, district superintendent. The budget represents a 2.88 percent increase in total spending over the current budget.
This is the first year school districts and municipalities are required to stay below an increase of 2 percent over the previous year when calculating how much they will need to raise through taxes to pay for their budgets. (Although there are a number of expenses that are excluded from the rule).
To stay under the tax levy limit, the school district was looking at a maximum tax levy of $31,591,184. The budget presented Wednesday had a tax levy which came in below that amount: $31,546,719, giving the district a $44,465 buffer. However, some of the numbers in the proposal are still estimates — and potential new expenditures were also discussed at the meeting.
In the proposed budget, there are very few cuts. Dr. Gratto said class sizes will remain as they are, with 17 to 18 students in each class in the primary grades and 20 to 22 students in the middle and high school classes.
“We thought about cutting classes from four [per grade] to three,” said Dr. Gratto. “We could have eliminated seven teachers, but would have increased class size. We decided not to do that.”
The board also did not cut any sports, clubs or any support services in the budget. The board was, however, able to find some substantial savings this year.
“We saved money in a lot of ways,” said Dr. Gratto. “In 2010-2011, eight teachers left and we replaced them with 5.8 positions. This saved us $720,000. We also trimmed special education teaching staff by three because our special ed classification rate has gone down.”
Dr. Gratto made a point that services were not taken away from students who needed them, but rather, “We have fewer students needing these services.”
This decrease in special education classifications came about in various ways, and School Board President Mary Anne Miller explained that one of the most important tactics is early intervention.
“We retrained our staff to help them identify issues,” she said in a phone interview. “If you can diagnose early on, many can be out [of special ed] by grades 3 or 4, and that’s what you want.”
She added that many students used to be sent out of the area to receive needed services.
“We’ve seen great savings from bringing some special ed kids back into the building, thinking outside the box to change offerings,” said Miller.
While Miller explained that every year students from the district are sent to other facilities, depending on their needs, more students were able to be served right on the Pierson campus with a few changes. “We now have our own life skills program in our building. It required more staffing, but there were so many benefits, both financial and quality of life.”
“Dr. Gratto wanted to try bringing the students back to our building,” she said. Now, instead of being bused out of the district for services, students are getting special services at Pierson. “We found quite a bit of savings as well as improved quality of life for the students and their families to not be transported away every day.”
Another way in which the district has saved money in recent years is by purchasing two buses, which allows the district to provide more transportation in-house. Dr. Gratto wants to multiply these savings by investing in more buses this year.
“When voters approved buying two buses, we saved a lot of money,” said Dr. Gratto. “Still though, we are contracting five regular runs with Montauk Bus Company. If voters approve six more buses, we could do virtually all our transportation in-house, and not have to contract out.”
Given some of the expenditures, like field trips, which cost the district $92 per hour with a 3-hour minimum, the estimated savings in busing costs would be over $1 million in the next 10 years, administrators said.
“Because of the way the debt payment falls, we will save $44,314 in the first year,” Verneuille said in a follow-up phone interview. “We can’t factor these savings into our budget because we don’t know if it’s going to pass or not.”
Another issue that came up at the meeting, and has not yet been factored into the proposed budget, is student accident insurance. For several months, the district had no student accident insurance plan in place. While liability insurance is required by law, accident insurance is not. There was some debate among the board members as to whose responsibility it is to cover students in the case of an accident where no one is at fault.
“The fundamental question,” said board member Chris Tice, “is while students are under the care of the district, do we feel we have an obligation to provide them with insurance, considering we require them to engage in high-risk activity? Personally I think we have that responsibility.”
Other board members, like Walter Wilcoxen, argued that students were not involved in high-risk activities and it should not be the school’s responsibility to insure them.
Miller advocated a parent-purchased insurance plan, saying “I like that parents can take care of it themselves. I can’t rationalize the $45,000 in the budget.”
Board member Sandi Kruel said that, “To not have it is just not acceptable. Every time my kid goes out and gets on a bus, it’s an accident waiting to happen.”
In the end, it came to a vote of 3-3 and board member Theresa Samot broke the tie with a vote for the school to purchase the plan. The student accident insurance plan, Chartis, will cost the district $45,765 and will go into effect as soon as possible.
Resident Elena Loreto stood up after the vote, imploring the board to next time “realize there are many seniors having difficulties paying yearly increases in taxes…You have a viable alternative by allowing parents to pay for their children’s insurance. I am not going to ask you to revote it.
But the next time something comes up to add something else to the budget think about your little neighbor who turns the heat down to 55 to save money.”
When asked how the plan would be covered, Verneuille said “I don’t know whether we’ll adjust the budget or cut something in another spot.”
“Those funds will come out of the undesignated fund balance, and that will affect the proposed budget,” said Miller on the phone. “That’s a discussion we have to have. Janet is quoting that we are about $40,000 under having to pierce the cap. If we decide to muck around with numbers as they are now, there will have to be a revision someplace else.”
The next budget meeting will take place on March 12, and these issues will be discussed. A decision is expected on the proposed budget at that meeting.