Springs Board Makes Deep Cuts

Pre-K to stay, Project MOST funding to go

    The fifth budget work session of the Springs School Board, on April 4, made clear a few pertinent points; that the school board was going to make some cuts, and that the decisions were going to be emotionally charged for both the board and the community.
    Audible gasps, sighs, and groans issued from the crowd, which was not invited to comment since it was a board work session, and at one point a Springs School teacher raced from the auditorium in tears as her position was eliminated.
    After the dust settled, programs like Project MOST, summer school, and many extracurricular activities, along with participation in interscholastic sports, had suffered or been eliminated.
    Due to the recent guidelines sent from Albany relating to the new 2-percent property tax levy cap, the budget for 2012-13 is limited to $24.68 million, or $208,920 less than the current budget, due in no small part to decreased revenue. A budget reduction of $791,969 over what was originally considered needed to be achieved by cutting programs.
    “Districts all over the state are grappling with this,” Tim Frazier, a board member and principal of the Southampton Intermediate School, said. “We’re going to try to be as fiscally responsible as possible.”
    “Please understand that this is very emotional for everyone,” the board president, Kathee Burke Gonzalez, said in a quiet voice. “No one prepares you for this. We realize this will affect staff members and their careers, and we are not taking this lightly.”
    One piece of good news: Rather than the $2.9 million that the board originally thought was all that would be allowed for the programs being inspected, it was learned that an additional $400,000 could be allocated after Colleen Card, the school’s business administrator, was able to examine the State Department of Education’s recently released instructions for the implementation of the tax levy limit.
    The five-person board looked at the 25 programs that had been discussed during a community forum on Feb. 11, and went down the list line by line, taking a “show of hands” vote amongst themselves on each program, then discussing the pros and cons of cutting or keeping it.
    Prekindergarten, which had been on the cutting block, passed with flying colors to the relief of many parents in the audience.
    Mr. Frazier was the only holdout on the most hotly-contested item of the night — changing the sixth grade from its current elementary model, which has the students spending a half-day in their homeroom with rotations for math, social studies, and science, to a middle-school model, in which the students would spend their first period with the homeroom teacher, and then travel from class to class like the seventh and eighth-grade students. The change would realize about $200,000 in savings and would lay off three of the least-senior elementary school teachers.
    “I’m speaking as an educator. It is going to tear apart this school,” Mr. Frazier said. “It’s going to make a difference in the morale of the school and it will destroy all the hard work this school has achieved.” Mr. Frazier’s wife, Tracey, is a fifth-grade teacher at Springs, but her position was not at risk by the vote.
    John Grant disagreed with Mr. Frazier. “I have to put students first, taxpayers second, and the staff third,” he said.
    “But that’s exactly what I’m doing, John,” Mr. Frazier answered. “Students are going to get harmed by this in a way that’s going to affect the performance of this school.”
    “I have to respectfully disagree that this is going to harm kids,” said Ms. Gonzalez. “They’ll have the same art teacher, the same music teacher. Personally, I think our kids will thrive.”
    Mr. Grant pointed out that in many districts, sixth grade is a year when children move to another building. “This is kindergarten through eighth,” he said. “Everything will still be familiar to them.”
    Immediately after that, the board changed the schedule from a nine-period day back to an eight-period day, which saved $100,000 by having four middle school teachers go from full time to four-fifths time.
    Again, Mr. Frazier seriously objected to both the loss of teaching positions and to reducing math classes from 70 minutes to 48 minutes.
    After more heated dialogue, it was decided that the changes to the sixth-grade program and the shift in class periods would be left open for possible further discussion.
    Funding for Springs School in Action, a film program for second through eighth-graders, which won the Magna Award last year, was cut from $60,000 to $10,000. The board saw savings of another $100,000 by appointing only one teaching assistant for two first grade classrooms, rather than having one in each classroom.
    When it came to regular education summer school, the board vetoed the program, saving $65,000, with Mr. Grant as the holdout against the move. “I have a big concern about regression during the summer anyway,” he said.
    There was a tense moment as the board voted to eliminate one English as a second language teacher. Alexandra McCourt, the least senior E.S.L. teacher, left the room in tears, followed by several other Springs educators.
    The board also voted to reduce middle school sports by 30 percent, achieved by cutting all East Hampton intrascholastic sports — football, lacrosse, track, and cross country. “I realize this isn’t going to be popular,” Ms. Gonzalez said. Liz Mendelman agreed. “It’s a loss to the school, but there are other options, like Little League,” she said.
    Four of the members voted to cut the school’s funding for Project MOST, a $40,000 cost. Teresa Schurr was the only vote to continue district funding for the popular after-school program, run by an independent nonprofit. “If it wasn’t for Project MOST, we wouldn’t have a greenhouse,” she said. “They have brought so much to the school. We voted no on intramural sports — that’s something Project MOST could pick up.”
    “We’re laying off teachers,” Mr. Grant responded. “We’re laying off staff, people I know and care about. I just can’t support something outside the school day.”
    Tim Bryden, the executive director of Project MOST, said on Tuesday, “Project MOST remains committed to supporting the academic goals of the school.” There is one state contract remaining for the program, after which, Mr. Bryden said, “There will be some reorganization.”
    “It’s a challenge to find resources, to make sure that kids that are at a disadvantage will be able to have the support they need,” he said. “All children who want one should have a quality after-school program available, as it improves academic performance, keeps kids safe, and supports working parents.” He added that the Project MOST board was committed to “sustaining this critical resource.”
    At the budget meeting, extracurricular activities — yearbook, journalism club, and student council among them — were cut by 50 percent across the board.
    “I’ve lost sleep over this,” Ms. Gonzalez said. “I’ve developed T.M.J. These decisions have been emotionally charged.”
    She addressed the audience. “Now you’ve seen democracy in action, warts and all,” she said.

Correction
    An article last week about the East Hampton School District budget incorrectly implied that funding for high school boys and girls lacrosse and boys volleyball programs were cut. Funding for the middle school second teams in those sports has been eliminated.