Last Year Fat, This, Muscle

East Hampton board works to cut $1 million

    The East Hampton School Board is looking to slice nearly $1 million from the 2013-14 district budget it first reviewed this year, but despite the cuts, the proposed $64.2 million budget as it stands would represent a 2.21-percent increase over this year’s and would include a proposed 5.53-percent tax-rate increase.
    The 2012-13 budget, by comparison, brought a tax-rate increase of 3.18 percent.
    “The first year was fat and the second year it’s muscle and next year it’s going to be bone,” Christina DeSanti, a board member, said at Tuesday night’s final budget workshop.
    On Tuesday, Richard J. Burns, the district’s superintendent, walked the board and three audience members through the proposed cuts, saying that the reductions would result in “instructional improvements and savings.”
    But some board members expressed concern over the large number of reductions planned, particularly given the size and scope of last year’s cuts — $2.8 million was culled from the draft budget.

    When it comes to cuts, none of the district’s three schools will escape unscathed.
    Going forward, East Hampton High School plans to eliminate both Mandarin Chinese and American Sign Language, though it will allow currently enrolled students to finish out their course of study by taking classes via Skype. The high school will also abandon its driver’s education program, choosing to outsource the program to a company that will run it before and after school at the students’, rather than the district’s, expense.
    The high school, where more than $65,000 in cuts are proposed, will also see a reduction in the number of sections offered for both art and home and career classes. While current art classes enroll between 8 and 12 students, for instance, future sections will see around 20 students per class.
    At East Hampton Middle School, where nearly $40,000 in cuts are proposed, similar reductions will be made to the number of sections available in science, physical education, and Spanish.
    The $60,000 in cuts proposed at the John M. Marshall Elementary School, will be seen in the school’s conference and beach field trip budgets, among several other items. 
    District-wide, Mr. Burns said there would also be a reduction in overtime due to a realignment of duties, a reduction in the number of extracurricular activities whose participants were few in number, and in funding for a security audit at each of the three campuses.
    Midway through the meeting, some confusion resulted, as building heads were apparently asked by Mr. Burns to present proposed cuts that equaled between 20 to 25 percent of their budgets.
    Alison Anderson, a board member, took issue with what she described as a “faulty leak of information” after she had received calls saying that all assistant coaches were to be excised from the more than $1 million athletic budget at a savings of more than $100,000.
    Robert Tymann, the district’s assistant superintendent, said there had been a misunderstanding and that personnel was never to be included in the cuts. Rather than face more than $200,000 worth of cuts, the athletic budget would see a proposed reduction of about $50,000, mostly having to do with equipment and supplies. All assistant coaches will remain in their positions.
    Again on Tuesday night, while board members perused line-item budgets from each of the three schools, the documents were only provided to the press after they were requested repeatedly.
     “We are not presenting our budget with the most knowledge to our reporters. We have more information than they do,” said Ms. Anderson. “Isabel, no offense to you, but we have to improve the way we present our budget,” she said, referring to Isabel Madison, the assistant superintendent for business.

     “There’s this feeling that we are hiding information,” said Mr. Burns, looking bewildered. “But we are being extremely transparent.”
    Once it came time to examine the proposed 27-page budget, Ms. Madison stood to address the board.
     “This is the best possible budget we can get given the circumstances that we have, considering we have to come in under the 2-percent cap,” said Ms. Madison. The budget, as it stands, is up 2.21 percent over this year’s. The tax levy increase next year is proposed at 5.01 percent, but falls under the state-mandated 2-percent cap because many items causing the increases are exempt from that cap. Should the district propose a tax levy increase greater than 2 percent, after the exemptions are factored in, 60 percent of East Hampton voters would have to approve the budget.
    Further complicating matters, Mr. Burns later said that the combination of salaries and employee benefits amounts to 75 percent of the nearly $64.2 million budget.
    At last week’s meeting, board members weighed whether to choose a Teachers’ Retirement System pension-smoothing plan of either 14 or 16.25 percent. While the 14-percent plan would provide the district with a lower rate and a savings of around $500,000 for the coming year, the district would essentially be borrowing money from itself that it would have to repay — including interest — in the coming years.
    On Tuesday night, board members agreed to the 16.25 percent allowance.
    Ms. Madison repeatedly cautioned that the numbers are still an estimate, particularly the tax rate increaase, as property taxes and assessments are still unknown and won’t be provided until later in the year. 
     “We’re between a rock and a hard place,” Patricia Hope, a board member, concluded at last week’s meeting. “Eventually, we run into the law of diminishing returns. Unless, of course, money falls from the sky, which even in East Hampton is unlikely to happen.”
    At Tuesday’s school board meeting, following a presentation by Mr. Burns detailing its highlights, the budget will finally be adopted. The meeting will begin at 6:30 p.m. in the district office. A budget hearing will be held on May 7, and the budget vote and school board elections will be on May 21.