“I make a motion that we meet every single day until we figure this out. This is what we were elected to do, “ said Alison Anderson, three hours into the East Hampton School Board meeting on Tuesday night.
After two public budget sessions at the end of March, attended by a largely vocal group of frustrated parents, teachers, and taxpayers, it ís back to the drawing board on the proposed $65.9 million district budget. Two more budget meetings were set for tomorrow and Saturday before the board is expected to vote on Tuesday.
Along with $2 million from the district’s fund balance that is to be put toward next year’s budget, Raymond Gualtieri, the district superintendent, said he hopes to reduce the amount to be raised by taxes by an additional $1 million.
The district now plans to take $2 million from the its accumulated fund balances, or surpluses, to return “to the community” as it has been doing “each year for the last eight years,” he said. Doing so will bring the 2011-12 increase in spending down to 1.68 percent over this year’s $64.8 million budget and carry a 6.94-percent increase in the tax rate, or $3.27 per $100 of assessed value.
“It’s possible that as we sharpen our pencils and pull out our calculators, that number could go up to $3 million prior to the vote,” Dr. Gualtieri said. That would translate to a 6.26-percent tax increase. Some of the $3 million might come from cuts, although it is possible that it might come from the fund balance, Dr. Gualtieri said.
State law allows fund balances to be up to 4 percent of the total budget each year. Money taken from such balances is reflected in the budget as a levy reduction, which, along with the $18.7 million in expected revenues, brings the amount to be raised by taxes to about $45 million.
Ira Bezoza, a member of the recently organized citizens budget committee and a founder of the Group for Good Government, came to the podium with questions about the surplus money.
“Four percent of the budget is about $2.5 million,” he said. “If you can give back $3 million out of that, it seems the district over-budgeted last year by $5.5 million.”
Calling past budgets “extravagant,” he said, “Unless you’re sure the cuts you’re making won’t affect the children or staffing, I suggest going into the $5 million plus of unspent money before you cut without knowing the impact.”
Just how large the fund balance was estimated to be at budget time last year was an open question. Isabel Madison, asked last week what the balance is now, said that would not be known until June 30, the end of the fiscal year.
“We’re paddling like ducks under water,” Dr. Gualtieri said. “This is foremost in everybody’s mind. We will have a final budget number on Tuesday, and we’ll explain how we came to it. There may be cuts. We’ll be married to the number, but not how we get to it.”
“I want to get next year’s budget into this,” Paul Fiondella, a frequent board critic, said. “I don’t think people really understand what the [proposed state] 2- percent tax cap could do. We’re behind the eight ball here. Next year is going to be the crunch.”
Ms. Anderson’s rallying cry came at this point in the meeting, eliciting applause from the smattering of those in the audience who held on until late in the evening to hear it.
“I mean, shouldn’t we be working around the clock until this is done?” she asked. “I didn’t even have a chance to give my input on the budget until yesterday.” She was seconded by George Aman and the two additional meetings were scheduled. The meeting tomorrow will be from 6 to 10 p.m.; the Saturday meeting is from 2 to 5 p.m. They are open to the public, unless personnel issues need to be discussed, in which case the board would adjourn to executive session.
The meetings are planned to be held in the district office, but may be moved to the high school’s auditorium if there is larger than expected turnout.
The board is to adopt its proposed 2011-12 budget at the Tuesday meeting in the auditorium, which begins at 7:30 p.m. The annual budget hearing is set for May 3, with the budget and election of board members going to a vote on May 17. Nominating petitions are due in the office of the district clerk by April 18.