Board Faces Tax Cap, Sports in the Crosshairs

The stresses of budget season came to the fore this week as East Hampton School Board members, facing the need to make cuts for the third year in a row, discussed a host of possibilities, including the elimination of fall cheerleading and seventh and eighth-grade boys and girls tennis.   

“It’s a difficult task,” said Richard Burns, the superintendent. The board has met at least once a week since the start of the year, doing line-by-line dissections in sessions that can last between four and five hours.

With the state’s tax-levy cap holding the increase at 1.46 percent, Mr. Burns said doing so would allow an increase of only $255,000 in the whole budget for the 2014-15 school year. All told, the district is faced with eliminating between $1 million and $1.5 million in spending.

“At the end of every strand, of everything we dig into, there are people at the other end who are affected. It’s an extraordinarily difficult thing to do,” Pat Hope, the school board president and a retired East Hampton High School science teacher said later in an interview.  During Tuesday’s board meeting she was nearly moved to tears.

The board’s next full meeting is on April 1 at 6:30 p.m. “At that point, we’ll be making the decision to stay at the cap or go over the cap. Your help is so important,” Ms. Hope said. “The more information and feedback we get, we appreciate it,” she said. “I had expected the PTA to be throwing tomatoes at us. Instead, they offered to help and fund raise. It’s beyond the pale.”

On Monday night during a budget work session that lasted more than three hours, the board faced hard decisions about sports. Joe Vas, the athletic director,  made a presentation with difficult news, even though his department budget shows a decrease for next year. He has proposed spending $842,195, down $25,000 from this year.

Of the East Hampton Middle School’s 249 students, 71 percent participate in at least one sport, he said. And at East Hampton High School half the 868 students participate in at least one sport. The elimination of varsity football would result in a $30,000 savings, he said, although the junior varsity and middle school programs would remain.

 Along with varsity football, Mr. Vas said that fall cheerleading would be discontinued, with 12 cheerleaders likely to be impacted. Though Jackie Lowey, a board member, advocated that cheerleading be viewed and budgeted as its own sport and competitive activity, Mr. Vas said East Hampton’s cheerleaders only wanted to cheer at football games.

Then at Tuesday’s board meeting, Board members considered the possible elimination of seventh and eighth-grade boys and girls tennis. “The district is changing and sports are changing,” said Ms. Lowey, reporting that no girls played tennis this year. Eliminating the teams would result in a $10,000 savings. Mr. Vas later said “one or two kids had come out” in the last two years and added that the high school teams would remain intact.

Mr. Vas also proposed the addition of a strength and conditioning class that would meet five days a week. The district now spends about $14,400 on a class that meets three days each week. He said it would help students develop a “competitive edge, put us on equal footing, and reduce injuries.”

Still, the need for cuts quickly came back into focus. “We’re about to cut a lot of other things and people’s salaries,” Ms. Lowey told Mr. Vas. “We have a lot of other priorities.”

“We want to see them have everything. They can’t have everything. What’s the priority?” Christina DeSanti, a board member, asked.

And following weeks of intense debate, the board finally approved a boys varsity lacrosse team trip to West Point to see an Army vs. Navy game on April 12. The district and the lacrosse program will split the cost of transportation, each paying $725. Two board members, Liz Pucci and Ms. Lowey, voted against it.

Awards and uniforms were also a target of possible cuts at Tuesday’s meeting, as was $450 allocated for Suffolk Zone, an annual student recognition dinner. Ms. DeSanti suggested eliminating fifth graders from the annual middle school dance competition, which would mean one less instructor and a $1,500 cut. In addition, board members weighed charging a nominal fee for the competition, and deemed $250 for helium and balloons unnecessary.

In addition to the presentation by Mr. Vas at Monday’s budget session, the board heard about necessary increases in transportation costs. Joseph Lipani, who oversees transportation for the district, presented a roughly $422,000 spending plan, which reflects a nearly 57-percent increase over last year’s $269,000. New equipment accounts for the bulk of the increase.

Since the start of this school year, the district has logged 1,939 hours for trips related to sports, daytime field trips, and extracurricular activities, Mr. Lipani said. Repairing aging buses also proved costly, he said. Mr. Lipani noted that some of the buses, last purchased in 2005-06, have accrued upwards of 100,000 miles. The board then agreed to buy a new wheelchair-accessible van at a cost of more than $77,000 and weighed buying a second, $60,000 van.

In other action at Tuesday’s meeting, the board recognized Carly Grossman, East Hampton High School’s valedictorian, and Mary Pizzo, its salutatorian. Members also voted to approve an employment change for Annette Zaino, a school bus driver, from part-time to full-time, at an annual salary of $36,650.

At no cost to the district, members also voted to begin a pilot program with Jigsaw Meeting, a distance-learning platform, from March 11 to June 30 to explore services related to its virtual classroom software program.

Board members announced that the John M. Marshall Elementary School principal, Beth Doyle, has given birth to a daughter, who has been named Olive Frances. During her maternity leave, Robert Tymann, the district’s assistant superintendent, is assuming principal duties.

During the second opportunity for public comments on Tuesday, the president and vice president of East Hampton Middle School’s PTA, spoke about the hope of keeping the school’s graduation ceremony there. In recent weeks, with an eye toward saving money, board members had suggested consolidating the district’s various graduation ceremonies at the high school, counting up the cost of chairs, sound systems, and decorations at each of its three schools.

Deme Minskoff, the PTA president, pledged an annual $500 donation from the PTA, in addition to a donation of $500 from the school’s graduation committee.

The next budget workshop will be Tuesday from 6 to 8 p.m.