East Hampton Will Pierce Tax Cap

In pared down budget, every school, department, and grade ‘took a hit’

Following months of debate and a line-by-line dissection of next years budget, the East Hampton School Board has decided to go above the state-mandated 2 percent cap on tax levy increases.

The proposed budget represents a 2.43 percent increase in the tax levy. As such, it requires the approval of 60 percent of voters in order to pass.

The 2013 consumer price index is 1.46 percent, which would only have allowed the district to add $255,000 to the budget. The cap allows school districts to increase their budgets by either 2 percent or the consumer price index — whichever is lower.

“We took away everything possible. There’s no fluff left in the budget,” said Richard Burns, the district superintendent, at Tuesday night’s board meeting. He said the cuts that would have had to accompany a 1.46 percent increase in this year’s $64.2 million budget simply would not have been “enough to move forward with our district.”

All told, the district sliced over $1 million from next year’s preliminary  budget.

“There was really no place left to go,” said Patricia Hope, the school board president. This is the third consecutive year that East Hampton has made significant reductions in its annual budget. “Every department took a hit, every school took a hit, every grade level took a hit.”

Among the cuts, the district eliminated seven paraprofessional positions and reduced an elementary school guidance counselor’s position to part time, saving $316,000 altogether. Also cut were items related to materials, supplies, equipment, field trips, and professional conferences.

“We didn’t make the decision lightly,” said Jackie Lowey, a board member. “We cut things we didn’t want to cut. It was painful.”

While no one openly questioned the increase in the tax cap, the reduction in hours in the guidance counselor position at John M. Marshall Elementary School was met with some hostility.

 Bridget Sokolowski currently holds the position. Besides her duties as a counselor, she also runs a program for children of divorced families and helps with attendance, scheduling, and state testing for students in grades 3 to 5. Come September, she will work a three-day week.

Candace Stafford, who runs the high school’s guidance department, read from a lengthy letter urging that the board reconsider its decision.

Katrina Foster, pastor of St. Michael?s Lutheran Church in Amagansett, agreed, saying it was “much easier and far less expensive to raise a whole child than to try and fix a broken adult.”

“What we do to the least and last among us is what matters the most,” said Ms. Foster. “It’s easiest to try and cut the budget for those least likely to organize and stand up for themselves.”

Arthur Goldman, a teacher at the high school and co-president of the East Hampton Teachers Association, also spoke in favor of keeping Ms. Sokolowski as a full-time employee.

In a follow-up conversation yesterday, Ms. Hope emphasized that John Marshall would continue to staff a full-time psychologist and a full-time social worker. While the one guidance counselor for the 600 children at the school would be reduced to part time, Ms. Hope said that should the need for increased personnel arise, guidance counselors at either East Hampton Middle School or East Hampton High School could easily be reassigned. Currently, the high school has six guidance counselors, while the middle school has one.

 “We would never leave the children hanging in times of crisis or in times of need,” said Ms. Hope. “We are well-staffed.”

A retired science teacher, she said the school budget was last voted down in the spring of 1978, when a contingency budget was adopted and anything extra eliminated. Come May, if 60 percent of district voters do not approve the budget, the school board can either submit it again or present a revised budget that is closer to the cap, or under.

Also at Tuesday’s meeting, Lisa Benincasa, who heads the science department at East Hampton High School, told the board that four students recently placed at the semifinals of the Long Island Science and Engineering Fair. Peter Davis and Matthew Tyler Menold received a third-place award for their work in the field of microbiology. Alexander Osborne received honorable mention for his work in energy and transportation, and Lindsey Stevens won honorable mention for her work in cellular and molecular biology.

The board also listened to a presentation from a group of visiting Japanese exchange students. Led by James Stewart, a teacher at the high school, the group has been here for the past three weeks, staying with local host families. Mr. Stewart said he hoped the program, now in its 36th year, will  result in a group of East Hampton students traveling to Japan next year.

Later in the meeting the board appointed Angel Farez to the position of part-time bus driver for a probationary period of 26 weeks. Beginning April 3, Mr. Farez will be paid an annual salary of $15,934. And, the board accepted the resignation of R.J. Etzel, head coach of the varsity baseball team.

The next budget workshop will be held on Tuesday night from 6 to 8 p.m. The annual budget vote will take place on May 20. Besides establishing a crisis service during phase one, a second phase would expand mental health services by hiring additional social workers and community health workers. The second phase would also include a mobile unit capable of going wherever there is urgent need. A third phase would bring Stony Brook psychiatrists to Southampton Hospital as part of an expanded residency program.

During the East Hampton School District’s budget talks in recent weeks, Adam Fine, the high school principal, had asked the school board for a $30,000 increase for mental health services. Faced with a state-imposed 2-percent tax cap and more than $1 million in budget cuts, however, increases of this nature weree far from guaranteed. Though numbers are still being finalized, Mr. Fine is hopeful at least $5,000 will come through. “Something will be allocated, but not the $30,000, Patricia Hope, the school board president, said on Wednesday.

Mr. Fine, who spearheaded the effort to increase mental health services here, first meeting with Mr. Thiele last summer, said he was very pleased with the state promise of $150,000. “This is the beginning of a long process to secure adequate funding and services for our at-risk students. I look forward to continuing the mental health dialogue with our committed local elected officials,” he said.

Further planning among those who comprised the group that came up with the request made to the state is underway. “Now that we have the state money, we will bring all of the members of the task force back together and plan next steps, including how to match funds and implement the proposal as we go forward,” Mr. Thiele said in a press release. Mr. LaValle joined his colleague in the release, calling the state allocation “a crucial step in working toward necessary solutions for this under-served area.” The legislators also noted this week that $500,000 had been approved for Lyme disease and tick borne illness prevention and treatment.