Budget Elicits Little Comment

Morgan McGivern

    Despite months of haggling over line items in East Hampton School District budget workshops — and more than $1 million in cuts — Tuesday night’s public hearing on next year’s $64.2 million budget was docile. Though the school board normally convenes in the district office, the hearing was relocated to the high school library in anticipation of a larger crowd, but few members of the public turned out. Even fewer spoke up.
    Richard J. Burns, district superintendent, led the audience methodically through a 19-page PowerPoint presentation. In it, he aimed to answer: How did we get here? And how will your tax bill change? Specifically, he addressed an issue that has confounded board members, administrators, and taxpayers alike: the 2 percent tax-levy cap.
     “Two percent is not 2 percent,” Mr. Burns said, explaining that those expenses that are mandated by the state are exempt from the final calculation. “When exemptions are included, 2 percent is actually 5.017 percent,” he said.    However, in order to remain within the 2 percent limit on an increase in the tax levy, which became state law in 2011 and which the board has accomplished when  mandated expenses are not considered, cuts of $1.06 million had been made in the first draft of the budget, which was proposed to the board back in January.
    The bulk of spending cuts centered on personnel reductions (with six teachers given part-time positions and two retirees not replaced). In addition, the driver’s education program will no longer be part of the curriculum, but will be run as a paid program during summers as well as before and after school. East Hampton, Mr. Burns said, had been one of the last remaining districts on Long Island to offer it as an in-house program during school hours.
    Speaking of the overall curriculum, Mr. Burns emphasized that the same courses would be offered next year even though parents can expect to see what he described as a “bump in enrollment.” Nevertheless, he said, course enrollment would “stay in the mid-20 range, which we feel is an effective range educationally.”
    Compared with the $64.2 million budget, the tax levy is $46.7 million, or a difference of nearly $18 million. State aid, tuition, and the district’s fund balance are the other revenue sources. This year’s budget represents a 2.21-percent increase over last year’s $62.8 million budget. Making sure that it was understood that the state cap is not on budgets, but on the increase in tax levies, Mr. Burns said it remained to be seen whether the district would be able to come under the 2-percent cap in future years without decimating essential programs. That fate was only narrowly escaped this past year, according to several board members.
    When it came to prospective tax bills, Mr. Burns noted that the tax levy increase of 5.017 percent would bring an estimated tax rate increase of 2.62 percent. He repeatedly emphasized that the rate was an estimate because they are subject to changes in overall assessed property values. Urging residents to examine their tax bills, he said that if the assessed value of a house is $6,000, next year’s increase would be $152.20. If the assessed value is $8,000, taxpayers can expect a yearly increase of $209.60.
    Coming up next is the vote on the budget and school board election, scheduled for May 21. If the budget were to be defeated, Mr. Burns said the district would have to weigh the “dire” possibility of adopting a contingent budget based on the prior year’s tax levy. To do so would require additional cuts.
     “I’m scared to death if we have to go with the contingent budget and where we’re going to cut $2 million,” Mr. Burns said. “I don’t even want to go down that road yet.”
     Of the budget process as a whole, Jackie Lowey, a board member, offered her assessment. “On a personal level for me, I’m proud of living in a community that’s willing to spend money on education. Last year, we voted to approve our budget and our children have a brighter future and our property values are higher because of the education offered in our district,” she said. “We cut $4 million dollars in the last two years. We worked very hard to eliminate things viewed as wasteful.”