At a public hearing Tuesday night of the East Hampton School District’s 2014-15 budget, which was sparsely attended, the district superintendent and several board members spoke passionately in favor of piercing the state-imposed tax cap. Overriding the cap requires the support of 60 percent of voters in order for the proposed $65 million budget to pass.
Even after board members cut $1 million from it, the budget exceeds the state-mandated 1.46-percent cap, which allows school districts to increase their budgets by either 2 percent or the consumer price index (the 2013 consumer price index is 1.46 percent), whichever amount is lower.
Spending is up by 1.3 percent, or $837,247, over this year’s budget. Homeowners whose properties have a median assessed value of $6,000 would see their school tax increase to $56.68, or about $5 more a month.
Had the district stayed within the state-mandated cap, the budget would have increased by only $255,000. That would have meant cutting into instructional programs and laying off still more faculty and staff. As it is, cuts were made to equipment, materials, supplies, conferences, and field trips. Seven paraprofessionals were laid off, one full-time guidance counselor was reduced to part-time hours, and two retiring teachers and one retiring paraprofessional were not replaced.
East Hampton is one of four districts on Long Island proposing tax cap overrides. The others are Bridgehampton, Sayville, and West Babylon.
Seventeen of the Island’s 124 school districts attempted overrides in May 2012. Last year, seven districts voted to pierce the cap. A majority of these attempts have failed to gain the needed 60 percent supermajority.
If the budget fails to pass, the East Hampton district will have one opportunity for a revote. The school board can either propose a new plan with decreased spending or try again with the same budget. Should it go down a second time, the district will be forced to adopt a contingent budget, based on last year’s numbers.
“We’ll be making at least a million in cuts if we are forced into a contingent budget,” said Richard Burns, the superintendent, warning of larger class sizes and fewer electives. “There’s not much more in terms of paper and pencils. It will definitely be personnel at that point.”
Patricia Hope, the board president, who is up for re-election, called his presentation “cogent, comprehensive, and clear.”
Paul Fiondella, a resident, questioned the budget’s over-$1 million increase forpersonnel. “Next year, aren’t you going to face the same problem?” he asked. “If you believe you have no way to cut administrative costs, what will you do next year?”
“It’s a conundrum. It’s a dilemma,” said Mr. Burns. Schools, he said, are labor-intensive undertakings, with labor costs accounting for 75 to 80 percent of East Hampton’s annual budget. “That’s our business.”
No one spoke out against piercing the cap.
“Good education costs money. I think it’s money well spent,” said Jackie Lowey, a board member who is also up for re-election. “These are our kids, and we’ve got one shot at them. They’re going to be the backbone of the future of East Hampton.
This is what it takes to run this district, and this is what it costs. I will happily pay the additional $50 in taxes and will give up my Starbucks coffee once a month.”
Compared to districts elsewhere on Long Island, said Ms. Lowey, geographical isolation makes East Hampton “the only game in town.”
Mr. Burns also spoke about the strain on educators expected to be mental health practitioners following cuts in state, county, and local resources. “We are spread too thin,” he said. “We are the be-all and end-all.”
“As a community member, I am supporting this budget,” said Lauren Dempsey, a former board member.
“I say go, go, go, and let’s make sure it’s going to pass.”
Shortly before adjourning, the board stood to applaud Mr. Burns.
The annual budget vote and school board election will take place on May 20 at the high school, from 1 to 8 p.m.