Seeking Help With Hard Choices

School turns to community as it looks to trim costs and programs in 2012-13

    The most surprising thing about Saturday morning’s Springs School community forum was the attendance. “We had 29 people participate last year,” said Kathee Burke Gonzalez, the president of the school board. “We expected about 70 here today.”
    Over 120 people packed the commons room in the school: parents, faculty, staff, and district taxpayers. And they were gathered to face a disturbing but unavoidable truth — with an anticipated $1.09 million shortfall in the upcoming school budget, something will have to go.
    “Our community has choices to make,” Ms. Gonzalez said. “And we need to make them together.”
    “This is a very difficult decision,” Liz Mendelman, a school board member, said, with a catch in her throat. She apologized for her show of emotion, then said, “This school is so important to all of us.”
    The crowd watched a video put together by Sue Ellen O’Connor, a teacher, focusing on the best of Springs School and concluding with a serious Eric Casale, the school principal, looking at the camera from his desk.
    “We’re proud of this school, but the landscape has changed,” he said. “But the values and core beliefs must always stay the same. This is what will define us as a school and as a community.”
    Part of the budget gap could be explained by last year’s high school tuition refund from the East Hampton School District to the tune of $800,000, which was counted as non-tax revenue in the 2011-12 budget and reduced the amount that had to be raised by taxes. That revenue source is vastly reduced in next year’s school budget, but with a new state-imposed 2-percent cap on tax levy increases, the district is feeling the pain of last year’s windfall as it works through next year’s proposed budget.
    This year’s school district budget is $24.84 million, with an estimated tax revenue of about $22.36 million. Administrators’ preliminary calculations indicate that the tax levy for the 2012-13 budget cannot exceed $22.83 million, or just over 2 percent above this year’s levy. District administrators have not offered a total number for their proposed 2012-13 budget as of yet.
    On Saturday, all participants were given a list of 25 possible programs that could be cut to bring the budget in line with the tax levy cap. The list included the cost of each program and sometimes of several options for that program, such as running it at 50 percent or dispensing with it completely.
    Eight facilitators led groups of approximately 14 people in smaller discussions for an hour, then the groups reconvened in the main area. The groups, each comprised of teachers, parents, and other district residents, were asked to pick their top 10 favorites from the list.
    “What we’re asking, rather than what you want to save, is what do you value most,” said Michael Hartner, the superintendent.
    When the facilitators reported back, there were several clear favorites. All the groups said that maintaining smaller class sizes, rather than increasing class size up to 30 students, was worthwhile. They also placed high value on keeping a full-day kindergarten program, along with the current teaching assistants in that grade.
    High marks were also given to the academic enrichment program, chorus and band instruction, the fourth-grade opera, the science Olympiad, and maintaining the current structure of physical education.
    Some favored doing away with free prekindergarten, which adds $130,000 to the budget, and some suggested reducing both educational field trips and extracurricular activities by 50 percent to the tune of a combined $50,000. Some also favored dispensing with the Springs School in Action film program, at $60,000, and with summer school, at $65,000.
    Of the six groups that reported back by the end of the meeting, three were in favor of continuing to fund the Project MOST after-school programs, at $40,000; three were opposed.
    Although the event progressed smoothly, considering that almost twice as many people showed up as expected, frustrations bubbled to the surface at the Springs School Board meeting on Monday night.
    “I commend the idea that you’re getting input,” said Carol Saxe Buda, a resident of the district. “But there was frustration from some of the people that administrative costs were not on the list of possible cuts.”
    “I was a teacher, my husband was a teacher, I like teachers,” she said, but added that the pension plans for staff and faculty need to “get back down to earth.”
    “We’re looking for concessions from the high end,” Ms. Buda said. “You’re asking the public to fund something for the highest paid teachers and administrators that they themselves don’t have.”
    “Taxpayers have taken all they can take right now,” she said.
    The Star obtained a statement from the Springs Teachers Association over the weekend, which reads: “In these challenging economic times, the teachers are particularly sensitive of the need to preserve the valuable programs for students at Springs School.”
    “We want to assure the community that we have brought this awareness to the ongoing negotiations of our contract. We are pleased to say that, although there is still much to be worked out, the S.T.A. and the district have a tentative agreement that calls for salary freezes and benefit concessions totaling over half a million dollars in savings to the district. We sincerely hope that this alleviates some of the pressure that the recent tax-cap legislation has placed on our school.” The statement could not be confirmed at press time.
    Tim Bryden, executive director of Project MOST, also spoke about Saturday’s community forum at the board meeting on Monday.
    “Project MOST has brought in $1.2 million to the school over the last five years,” he said. “Just this year, the $40,000 that Springs invests in this program has brought in $325,000.” Mr. Bryden added, “That’s not in-kind services, that’s in real cash.”