April 2, 2011
In an act of professional integrity, Isabel Madison quietly pointed to a piece of paper she handed out at the second public hearing last week Tuesday. The piece of paper was the tax bill you can expect to receive in December 2011 if you live in the East Hampton School District. She pointed to the line that says “percent change in the tax rate from prior year.” She said that if the current budget were adopted that figure would be 11.19 percent. That’s right, your tax rate would not increase 6.94 percent, as reported in most newspapers, but 11.19 percent, roughly $300 per $6,000 of assessed value. That is the true measure of the budget developed by Mr. Gualtieri, an 11.19 percent tax increase.
This is a Gualtieri budget. Apparently Mr. Gualtieri and the rubber stampers allowed the teachers, parents, and students to believe, prior to the first public hearing, that huge austerity cuts would be made in his budget. He then scheduled the budget hearings at 5 p.m., so that the panicked teachers who filled the audience would have an opportunity to voice their outrage at this attack on education. Then, following the script, Mr. Gualtieri delivered his budget, which contained no cuts. Mike Tracey, a former rubber stamper, then told the crowd to vote for the Gualtieri budget or the alleged cuts would come in the austerity budget that would result from any voting down of the Gualtieri budget.
I didn’t buy any of this. At Tuesday’s hearing I presented $829,331 in budget cuts that did not have any effect on the quality of education in the district. I found Mr. Gualtieri had put $300,000 in the budget, as he did last year, for his favorite Wall Street law firm (Morgan, Lewis) to litigate the Sandpebble fiasco; I cut it. He had $115,910 in the budget for travel and conferences. I cut it. He had $168,955 for driver education instruction; I reduced it by suggesting we outsource the program. He had $32,500 for printing and advertising; I reduced it.
Could the school board have come up with a better list? A real school board would present a carefully thought-out budget, the result of months of deliberations. But various members of the school board said they were not even consulted when this budget was developed. That’s right, members of your school board didn’t even know what Mr. Gualtieri was doing. They were not included in the discussion. Some are asking why if I can come up with cuts that do not affect the quality of education Mr. Gualtieri couldn’t do the same thing. It will be interesting to see if Mr. Gualtieri uses the rubber stampers on the board to get what he wants or is forced by other school board members to present a better budget.
It seems strange, however, that the superintendent would develop a budget vote choice between an 11.19-percent tax increase and the prospect of austerity. Those are not the real choices. He knows as well as I do that the real budget crunch comes not in 2011-12 but in 2012-13 — if the state imposes a 2-percent cap on the tax levy.
Given a new professional employees’ contract, $1 million in further pension costs, a further cut in state aid, and millions more on the Sandpebble lawsuit in 2012-13, East Hampton will be in no position to meet that cap without massive teacher layoffs. Either we get our budget under control this year or we face that inevitable prospect next.
As I said on last week Tuesday, I don’t agree with laying off teachers. I want an intelligent budget. Mr Gualtieri has admitted he has no plan for how to handle the state 2-percent cap other than to pray it doesn’t happen. The taxpayers, teachers, parents, and students of this district have a choice. You can follow Mr. Gualtieri off the edge of the cliff or you can elect school board members who want to avoid a financial disaster. Just remember that Mr. Gualtieri, like our Wall Street banker lawyers, has a golden parachute. All you get are the rocks below the cliff.