Final Budget Numbers

On Tuesday night, following months of intense debate, the East Hampton School Board convened its last line-by-line budget workshop of the 2014-15  school year. Isabel Madison, the district’s assistant superintendent for business, led the presentation of the final budget numbers.

In recent weeks the board decided to go above the state-mandated 2 percent cap on increases in the tax levy (the amount of the budget raised by property taxes). The proposed $47,507,169 levy represents a 2.43-percent increase over last year. As such, it will require the approval of 60 percent of voters in order The total proposed budget is up by 1.3 percent, or around $800,000, over last year’s $64.2 million.

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

“Budget to budget, tax rate to tax rate, it’s an increase of 1.89 percent,” said Ms. Madison. The tax rate per $100 of assessed value is currently $51, she said. For example, then, a house with a median assessed value of $6,000 would see it increase to $56.67, or around $5 more a month.

Jackie Lowey, a board member, urged that a levy-to-levy comparison, not budget-to-budget, be made. “Budget to budget, it’s only up 1.3 percent. It’s significant,” urged Ms. Lowey. “It’s also significant because in terms of the rebate that people think they’re getting in terms of a tax credit, it’s about $50 dollars a year at most. People are under the impression that we’re stopping them from getting a big tax rebate.”

Her reference was to a recent plan unveiled by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, giving residents in districts that stay within the cap a rebate check equal to the tax increase imposed by their new budget. Should voters okay a budget that pierces the cap, they would receive no rebate.

Earlier in the long meeting, board members listened to an appeal from Maureen Wikane and Laura Anker of the Eleanor Whitmore Early Learning Center, who hope to expand its current half-day pre-K program into a full-day one. Ms. Wikane is the center’s director and Ms. Anker is vice chairwoman of its board of directors.

“One of our concerns is that because it’s only a two-and-a-half-hour program, a lot of parents just aren’t sending their children,” said Ms. Anker, after acknowledging that the school board was under extreme pressure given a year of excruciating budget cuts. “We’re losing kids, some of whom need it the most.”

The two women supplied a proposed budget for 2014-15. For 52 children, the current half-day program costs the district $460,089. A full-day program next  year would run $645,560. The half-day program costs $8,186 per child; the full-day program would cost $12,627.

“We tried to look at every way that we could cut so that a full day would by all means not be double a half-day,” urged Ms. Anker, noting that Amagansett, Bridgehampton, and Montauk all offer free full-day pre-K programs.

Board members, however, balked at the increased costs, suggesting instead that a committee be formed to explore the possibility of expanding the program in future.

“These costs are higher than neighboring districts,” said Ms. Lowey. “My question is, what kind of exercises have you done internally to drill down on the costs?”

Christina DeSanti, another board member, said that every department in the district had been forced to cut between 10 and 15 percent, and that “we need to get that per-pupil number down.” Also, citing the board’s $1 million in cuts to date, she warned that the district faced another $400,000 slash should the budget not pass.

 “Every one of us buys into the value of full-day versus half-day, just as a full day of kindergarten is more effective than a half day of kindergarten,” said Patricia Hope, the board president.

 “We’ve tortured every department in this district that’s come before us,” said J.P. Foster, a board member, with a half-smile. “We have to do the same to you.”

Following next week’s school recess, the board will meet on April 22 at 6:30 p.m., when it is expected to adopt the budget. Nominating petitions for school board candidates are due the day before. A budget hearing is planned for May 6 at 7:30 p.m., and the annual budget vote and election of board members will take place on May 20, from 2 to 9 p.m.