Taking Scalpel to the Budget

    On Tuesday night, the East Hampton School Board convened the third of five budget workshops planned for the 2013-14 academic year.
    According to preliminary figures, while the high school’s budget is slated to decrease by nearly $25,000 from last year’s budget of $388,000, the district’s physical education, driver’s education, health, and athletic budget will see a $10,000 increase over last year of more than $1 million.
    Taken together, the preliminary 2013-14 budget calls for more than $65 million in spending.
    At the start of Tuesday’s meeting, Isabel Madison, the assistant superintendent of business, indicated that while a lot of moving pieces still remained, about $600,000 would likely need to be shaved from the budget before all is said and done.
     “There will for sure be cuts,” Jackie Lowey, a board member, later affirmed. “The question remains, could 10 percent be cut from each budget without slicing into crucial programs?”
    The purpose of the workshops, during which board members pore over budgetary items in line-by-line detail, is to provide transparency and openness to a process that can be difficult for outsiders to follow. The public, while invited to attend, cannot comment or ask questions. So far, not one member of the public has showed up. 
    But lacking sufficient documents, the already granular discussion becomes nearly impossible to grasp.
    At the first workshop, in late January, copies of the documents being discussed were withheld from audience members. At the next one, in mid-February, detailed documents related to the elementary school and middle school’s budgets were provided — with the latter stretching to more than 100 pages.
    But on Tuesday night, the board again reversed its course. While it provided audience members with documents, they were not the line-by-line items that board members received, once again making the discussion almost impossible to decipher.
    Adam Fine, the high school principal, presented his budget, while Joe Vas, the district’s athletic director, answered questions related to his.
    “If we had to say we needed to cut 10 or 15 or 20 percent from your budget, could we do it?” asked Ms. Lowey.
    “Yes,” said Mr. Fine. “If need be, we could even cut more.”
    Already, the high school plans to phase out its American Sign Language program, and board members discussed the possibility of doing the same with Chinese, which would ultimately provide a savings of $10,000.
    “It doesn’t seem like a lot to save for a language of the future,” said Alison Anderson, a board member. Subsequently, the board discussed the possibility of sending East Hampton students to the Ross School for Chinese instruction. Ross requires Mandarin throughout its K-12 program.
    As Mr. Vas approached the podium, Ms. Lowey remarked that “there are like-to-haves and need-to-haves in this budget. You are going to have to cut this budget. It’s not going to stand as is.”
    The disputed items included $10,000 for the Bonac on Board to Wellness, a health and fitness program; $2,000 on school uniforms, and nearly $10,000 on new sports benches, among several others.
    Also at issue was whether or not to continue the driver’s education program. Rather than eliminating it, Ms. Anderson spoke of making it a paid program. “We’re the only school on Long Island to offer it at all,” she said, urging that the board revisit it at a later date. Liz Pucci, a board member, asked that driver’s ed be discussed at next week’s board meeting, “so that parents can hear it.”
    In the coming weeks, two additional workshops are planned for March 21 and April 9. The meetings begin promptly at 6 p.m. in the district office, at the high school on Long Lane.