School Budget Meets State Cap

Two administrators, teachers, some sports, and a middle school play will go

    The East Hampton School Board approved a $62.8 million budget for the 2012-13 school year at its meeting Tuesday night after a presentation by Richard Burns, the interim superintendent, on the $2,772,654 in cuts made in order to squeeze under the state’s recently enacted 2 percent cap on property tax increases. A public hearing on the budget will be held on May 1 and taxpayers will get to vote on it on May 17.
    “The first draft . . . was $65,621,042,” Mr. Burns said. “We needed to get to $62,848,388.” He acknowledged that the budgeting guidelines from Albany had been confusing. “But,” he said, “I think we have a true handle on it.”
    After many long meetings and late hours, the board seems to have accomplished what it set out to do — but at an expense. Two administrators will not be returning next year, and three teachers, five paraprofessionals, two custodians, and one district-wide position were cut.
    “Unfortunately, we had to excess some positions,” Mr. Burns said.    
    The administrators let go are Lawrence Roberts, the director of unified arts and assistant middle school principal, and Eric Woellhof, the director of facilities. “These were very difficult decisions,” Mr. Burns said. Alison Anderson, a board member, agreed. “It’s one of the toughest things I’ve ever been involved in.”
    Other cuts in the budget were possible because nine employees chose to take an early retirement incentive. “That’s nine positions that will not be replaced,” Mr. Burns said, noting that doing so saved $878,896. 
    The rest of the cuts came from restructuring or streamlining programs and departments.
    “We have scrutinized, analyzed, and developed this budget line by line,” Mr. Burns said.
    For example, parents will probably have to absorb some or all of the costs of drivers’ education. “I think we’re one of only two schools in Suffolk that pays for drivers’ ed,” Ms. Anderson said.
    As outlined in previous articles, the East Hampton Middle School will no longer have second boys or girls lacrosse teams or  boys volleyball. Expenses for one of two plays at the Middle School also bit the dust.
    The senior citizens event, at which guests are served lunch before seeing a high school musical, received a death-row pardon from Kevin Seaman, the district attorney, who offered to underwrite the $4,000 cost.
    The district is also looking at bringing more special education programs back to East Hampton, rather than continuing to send students to Westhampton, which, according to Mr. Burns, is highly expensive and time-prohibitive. “We’re thinking of creating our own programs here. Maybe to have an autism center that other districts close by can also avail themselves of,” he said.
    All the cuts and changes were the lesser of two evils, according to Jackie Lowey, a board member. “I think the board agreed strongly that a contingency budget, which is close to $4 million in cuts, is a scary thought. We thought of piercing the cap,” she said, referring to the choice some districts are making to go above the 2-percent tax levy cap, relying on a supermajority vote from taxpayers to sanction the decision. “But if it didn’t pass, we would have to go to a contingency, which would not serve the district well,” Ms. Lowey said.
    “This was unbelievably difficult and painful,” Laura Anker Grossman, the school board president, agreed. “But it’s helped us look at things in a more creative way.”
    She warned that “this isn’t the end, either. The tax cap is around until at least 2016. We’re going to have to continue looking at cuts next year, and the year after that.”
    Patricia Hope, a board member, likened the effort to “tines on a fork being straightened out. The curriculum is going to be tightened up. We’re going to have to take a good, hard look at what’s working and what isn’t.”
    But Mr. Burns said the district still wants “to make sure we’re remaining on the cutting edge.” He added that  money was still earmarked in the budget for professional development. “We’re committed to that.”
    “Things were gold-plated in the past,” Ms. Lowey said. “Right now we are able to reduce costs without reducing quality of education.”
    Ms. Hope became emotional, and her voice broke as she said, “We have taken wonderful things away to cut away what we see as fluff. But I think we did it.”
    Mary Ella Moeller, an East Hampton activist who often chides the board, said, “I think you’ve done a good job. Tough times don’t last, but we’re tough people and we’re going to make it through.”