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Most, Not All, School Budgets Are Under the Cap

Fri, 05/17/2019 - 00:41
The Wainscott School District is the only one between Bridgehampton and Montauk whose proposed 2019-20 budget pierces the state-mandated tax levy cap.

School budget votes and board elections take place on Tuesday across New York State. There are school board races in five of the eight school districts between Bridgehampton and Montauk, and proposed 2019-20 budgets in all but one — Wainscott — come in under the state-mandated cap on tax levy increases. 

In Wainscott, while the budget is decreasing slightly, school taxes will go up a hefty 18 percent if the budget is approved. Because the increase pierces the cap, it will only pass if 60 percent or more of voters say yes. A simple majority is required in the other seven districts.

East Hampton

Voters in East Hampton School District will choose three school board members from among four candidates and vote on a proposed 2019-20 budget that totals just under $71 million. 

If approved, spending next year will go up by $1.1 million or 1.58 percent. About $51.8 million is to be raised through property taxes, while $14.7 million in revenue comes from tuition payments. State aid contributes about $3.4 million. If approved, the tax levy will increase 1.85 percent, which is within the state-mandated tax cap. 

What will that mean for voters? The district has estimated the tax rate will increase by 1.91 percent over this year’s, going from $53.42 per $100 of assessed property value to $54.46 per $100 of assessed value. 

The estimated annual school tax increase on a property with an assessed value of $6,000 would be $61.28. 

The three school board seats to be filled include the two held by James P. Foster and Wendy Geehreng, who are seeking re-election, and the one formerly filled by Richard C. Wilson, who died in October. The board has been operating with six members since then. 

Sandra Vorpahl, who previously sat on the board for six years, and Jeff Erickson, an East Hampton Village police sergeant, are also seeking seats.  

Ms. Vorpahl is a former employee of the district, where she worked as secretary for 32 years. She retired from the school in 2002, but worked part time for the Y.M.C.A. East Hampton RECenter for 14 years, until two years ago. She was first elected to the board in 2004, and reelected in 2007, before losing re-election three years later. Her grandchildren attend East Hampton schools.

Mr. Erickson is the parent of a sophomore at East Hampton High School. He ran for school board unsuccessfully last year, but is still hoping to become more involved in the school community. He has been with the village police for 28 years. His wife, Trisha Erickson, is a physical education teacher in the elementary school. 

Mr. Foster and Ms. Geehreng are each seeking a third term on the board. Mr. Foster is a chief East Hampton Village dispatcher who serves in an administrative role and is a real estate agent with Town and Country. His youngest child is graduating from the high school next month.

Ms. Geehreng has been a pediatric nurse-practitioner at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital for the last five years. She has four children, one of whom is a sixth grader in the East Hampton Middle School. 

All three seats are for three-year terms. 

Voting will take place at the district office on Long Lane between 1 and 8 p.m.

Springs

In the Springs School District, voters will weigh in on a nearly $29.7 million budget, choose among four candidates for two seats on the school board, and decide whether the district should buy a new school bus and a pickup truck to replace two older vehicles. 

The 2019-20 budget is up $818,462 over this year’s, a 2.83-percent increase in spending, with $26.6 million to be paid for through taxes. The 3.25-percent tax levy increase falls under this year’s state-mandated cap. The tax rate will increase from $104.20 per $100 of assessed value to $107.83 per $100 of assessed value, a 3.48-percent hike.

“The bulk of our budget expenditures are all contractual obligations, for debt service, for tuition, for salaries, so there’s really no wiggle room there,” Michael Henery, the district’s business administrator, explained at a May 8 budget hearing. 

The district spends about $8.85 million on high school tuition. That, Mr. Henery pointed out, is “about 50 percent of what we spend on our students here, for less than half the students.” In-district program costs are just over $17.2 million. 

Tuition costs are expected to decrease slightly in the 2019-20 school year, but “we’re losing some revenue in other areas,” Mr. Henery said. “The biggest single drop is losing some students we take in here in Springs that we charged their home districts for to the tune of about $180,000.” While the district has made up that revenue in other areas, it will still see a net loss of about $19,000, according to the business administrator. 

Voters will be asked to okay the purchase of a 66-passenger school bus to replace one bought in 2006 and a light-duty pickup to replace one bought in 1990. The cost of the two over five years is expected to be $135,000 plus interest. 

For school board, David Conlon and Amy Rivera are seeking re-election and Deborah Goodman and Joseph Sullivan are looking to unseat them.

Mr. Conlon was elected in 2016 after serving on a facilities committee that studied ways to address overcrowding at the school. A licensed real estate salesman with Douglas Elliman, he also serves on the board of Hoops4Hope and coaches youth basketball and baseball. Ms. Rivera, who is a deputy tax receiver for East Hampton Town, was also elected in 2016. 

Ms. Goodman has a background in corporate finance and accounting and served for 10 years as director of finance for the Black & Decker Corporation. In retirement from corporate life, she works with the Project Most after-school program at the Springs School and was previously a lunchroom monitor there. This is her first run for the board.

Mr. Sullivan is a project manager at Telemark Construction and a founder and owner of the Montauk Brewing Company. His wife is a teacher at the school. Mr. Sullivan is a first-time candidate.

Polls will be open in Springs from 1 to 9 p.m. in the school library.

Sag Harbor

In the Sag Harbor School District, voters will cast ballots on a nearly $42.9 million budget, choose three board members from a field of six, and decide whether the district should purchase a new school bus and a new Chevrolet Suburban “bus” with money from the transportation fleet capital reserve fund. 

The proposed 2019-20 budget is up by just over $1 million, or 2.4 percent, from this year’s. The total tax levy will rise by 3 percent to about $38.7 million. The increase is below the state-mandated cap, which is 4.56 percent for the district this year. “For the eighth year in a row, we are presenting a tax levy lower than the tax levy limit!” the district proclaimed in material handed out at its May 7 budget presentation.

Salaries and benefits account for nearly 78 percent of the district’s 2019-20 budget, a figure that is essentially the same as in this year’s budget.

The highest two vote-getters in Tuesday’s election will get full three-year terms and the third highest will serve the remaining year of an unexpired term. Two incumbents, Chris Tice, who was first elected in 2010, and Brian DeSesa, who was appointed in December to fill the seat vacated by January Kerr, are both running to keep their seats. Ms. Tice, an associate broker with Corcoran, is a former vice president of the board. Mr. DeSesa is an attorney in Bridgehampton who also serves on the Southampton Town Zoning Board of Appeals. 

Also in the running are Yorgos Tsibiridis, Caleb Kercheval, Julian Barrowcliffe, and Thomas McErlean. Mr. Tsibiridis has a background in finance and works as a real estate broker with Douglas Elliman. He has volunteered on the board’s policy committee for the past three years. Mr. Kercheval is a real estate agent with Sotheby’s who served on the district’s transportation committee. Mr. Barrowcliffe worked in finance for 25 years and has served on the board of Blue School in New York City for the past six years. Mr. McErlean, who owns a landscaping and property management company, serves on the district’s athletic committee. 

Finally, voters will decide on the purchase of a large 2019 school bus for an estimated $103,524 and a 1500 series 2019 Chevrolet Fleet Suburban with four-wheel drive for an estimated $74,922 from a capital reserve fund approved by the voters in 2017. The S.U.V., the district said, is “a more cost-effective approach to transport routes with lower student numbers” or to transport smaller groups to destinations such as the Board of Cooperative Educational Services programs or club competitions. 

Voting will take place in the Pierson High School gym between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m.

Amagansett

Five candidates seek three places on the Amagansett School Board. They are Kristen V. Peterson, Matthew Feyh, Anna Bernasek, William Muchnic, and Mary A. Eames. They are competing for two full-term seats and a two-year term to fill a seat left vacant by Patrick Bistrian III.

The district’s proposed 2019-20 budget is up by 1.5 percent over this year’s. The $10.9 million spending package is within the state-mandated tax-levy increase. 

According to a statement from Seth Turner, the district superintendent, “The budget meets the board’s goal to maintain programs and support services for pre-K through sixth graders at Amagansett School.” 

Mr. Turner said that the additional taxes would be around $40 for the year for a property assessed at the local median value.

In dollars, the largest spending increases in the proposed budget are for teachers’ salaries and materials. Benefits will decline, as will administration and maintenance costs. State aid is also expected to be lower. Health and dental costs will rise.

In all, the 2019-20 Amagansett School District budget will increase by $161,000 if voters smile upon it.

Among the candidates, Ms. Eames has sought a place on the Amagansett School Board before. She is a near-constant observer at meetings — often the only member of the public there — and a critic of many board decisions. She has served in the Amagansett Ambulance Company for more than 28 years and works as a clerk in the East Hampton School District.

Mr. Muchnic, who is known as Hank, has had three children in the Amagansett School. He first won a place on the school board in 2016. That year, Kristin V. Peterson also gained a seat. Both ran unopposed. He is on the board of an investment company and the Muchnic Foundation.

Ms. Peterson, the current president of the board, has a master’s degree in international affairs and finance from Columbia University and formerly worked as a futures and sovereign analyst for the Bear Stearns credit department. 

Ms. Bernasek, a writer, lost a 2017 bid for school board to Claudia Quintana, who mounted a strong write-in campaign. However, Ms. Bernasek was appointed to the board to take the place of Patrick Bistrian III when he moved out of district last year. Ms. Bernasek, like Mr. Muchnic, had been among the opponents of an affordable housing project now being constructed on a site on Montauk Highway, citing a range of concerns, including on the school budget. 

Mr. Feyh, a private chef and eight-year member of the Amagansett Fire Department, is an assistant captain and certified interior firefighter in the department’s Company 2. He is among the supporters of the 37-unit housing complex. He has also worked in landscaping and as a builder. He was educated at the Culinary Institute of America. He spent five years in the kitchen at Nick and Toni’s restaurant in East Hampton and did a turn as chef and pit-master at Townline BBQ in Sagaponack.

Voting will be on Tuesday at the school between 2 and 8 p.m. 

Montauk

The total 2019-20 proposed budget in Montauk is $19.3 million.

No fewer than three six-figure expense reductions would produce a savings to Montauk taxpayers if the 2019-20 school budget is approved on Tuesday. 

The largest drop, just over $344,000, is in projected tuition payments to East Hampton High School and BOCES. Other reductions are expected in expenses related to the Montauk School building and grounds ($226,000) and teacher and other program employees’ salaries and benefits ($217,000).

In all, the 2019-20 spending plan peels off just over $416,000. The result is a 3.3-percent drop in the tax rate. The school tax amount for a property with an assessment figure of $5,000 would be about $90 less next year, according to a district budget summary.

Increases were anticipated in administration salaries and benefits and transportation costs. 

State aid was expected to increase slightly to about $900,000. The district’s fund balance, essentially a rainy-day bank account, would contribute $1.9 million, leaving about $16.3 million to come from property taxes. 

There were 443 pre-K through grade 12 students in the Montauk district as of this week, according to Grace Lightcap, the district clerk.

Two incumbent school board members are running unopposed, Thomas Flight, for a five-year term, and Nicholas Finazzo, to complete a one-year term left open after Patti Leber stepped down last year.

An authorization for $7.4 million to pay for a major expansion of the Montauk Library will also be on the ballot. That proposition is covered elsewhere in today’s paper. Voting is at the Montauk School from 2 to 8 p.m.

Wainscott

Wainscott taxpayers face the unpleasant prospect of seeing their school taxes jump by more than 18 percent in 2019-20. This is because for a string of years, the school board chose to in effect overtax residents, rolling up a surplus first noticed by state authorities in 2013.

Since then, the board has kept the tax rate artificially low by shifting money back and forth from the surplus, called the “unrestricted fund balance,” to pay for annual expenses. At its peak, the surplus exceeded the legal limit by just over 73 percent, according to a report from the New York State Comptroller’s Office.

The excess grew as the district underestimated tax revenue and overestimated expenses for several years, spending about $911,000 less than planned. 

Among the comptroller’s observations was that “District officials failed to take corrective action to our prior report that pointed out the excess accumulation of fund balance.” Under the law, school districts are not allowed to hold a cash reserve of more than 4 percent of the next year’s budget.

In a letter to the comptroller’s office, David Eagan, the president of the board of the Wainscott Common School District, responded that the small size and “volatile and increased student population” made its financial needs unique and the state report “unfair.”

The comptroller’s office dismissed that take, noting that the law did not allow for any exceptions.

Last year, the district drew $985,000 from the surplus; this year that number will drop to $660,000.

In a statement, the board said, “. . . our reliance on our unrestricted fund balance to decrease your tax payments was not sustainable and as a result this year’s tax levy increase is inevitable.” It also predicted that the 2020-21 tax levy would probably rise as well.

What makes this more peculiar is that the school budget is actually going down, albeit by a slight amount. In order for the budget to be approved, at least 60 percent of votes cast on Tuesday must be in favor of piercing the tax levy cap.

Twenty-eight children from kindergarten through third grade go to the schoolhouse on Wainscott Hollow Road. That number is expected to rise in the next school year.

About 89 older students attend school in either the East Hampton or Sag Harbor districts. With tuition payments to other districts, the spending plan being brought to voters on Tuesday is for $3.3 million.

William A. Babinski Jr., an incumbent, is seeking re-election unopposed. Voting will take place from 2 to 8 p.m. on Tuesday.

Bridgehampton  

In Bridgehampton, the board has proposed an $18.7 million budget for the 2019-20 school year that falls within the allowable tax cap limit. 

The spending plan, which will increase by about $2.4 million, includes maintaining all current programs, services and co-curricular offerings, as well as hiring three teachers in math, science, and technology. “After careful consideration and a broader view of expected student achievement, these additional faculty members will help benefit our students by providing the essential skills necessary for success in the global community,” Robert Hauser, the superintendent of schools, said in a budget newsletter. 

Payments associated with the community-approved bond project make up a large portion of the levy increase, 11 percent. Mr. Hauser said the district worked to find alternative revenue sources and improve efficiency for the district’s long-term fiscal health. 

Of the $18.7 million budget, $15.9 million will comes from property taxes and $803,639 from state aid. The proposed budget would bring a tax increase of $1.82 per $1,000 of assessed valuation. On a home with an assessed value of $1 million, property owners would see a tax increase of $53.92. 

In addition to the budget proposition, voters will be asked to approve the renewal of leases on two adjacent parcels for use in the school’s agricultural education program. The total combined rent for the first year is $3,000. The district is looking to lease the property for up to three more years. 

Five people are seeking two three-year terms on the school board. The positions are currently held by Michael Gomberg and Jennifer Vinski, who are both seeking re-election. Three others are running: Angela Torres Chmielewski, Randall Davis, and Carla Lillie. 

Ms. Vinski is seeking her third term on the board. She has two children in the Bridgehampton School, and works as an elementary special education teacher in the Southampton School District. Mr. Gomberg, who is seeking his second term, is a parent of two Bridgehampton students. He has worked in the financial services industry, most recently for Edward Jones.

Ms. Torres Chmielewski, the vice president of the Bridgehampton Parent Teacher Organization, has two children at the Bridgehampton School. She has also served on the Parrish Art Museum’s business council and as a director of the Children’s Museum of the East End.

Mr. Davis, a youth basketball coach with two children at the school, works as a custodian for the Sag Harbor School District. 

Ms. Lillie, whose father, James Spooner, served on the school board, has three children at the school. She works as a bookkeeper at East End Pediatrics. 

Voting will take place at the school between 2 and 8 p.m.  

Sagaponack

In the small Sagaponack School District, voters will be asked to approve a $1.6 million budget, re-election of the board president, who is running unopposed, and one-year tuition contracts with both the East Hampton and Sag Harbor School Districts. 

The proposed 2019-20 budget will increase .95 percent over the current year, with preliminary tax rate information showing a decrease in the tax rate year over year.

The tuition contract with the East Hampton School District would allow children in fourth through sixth grade to attend East Hampton schools next year. The contract with Sag Harbor would allow preschoolers, as well as fourth through sixth graders, to attend Sag Harbor schools next year. 

Cathy Hatgistavrou, the board president, was first elected during a special election in 2011 to fulfill an unexpired term after a board member moved out of the district. She was elected to a full term in 2013 and then again in 2016.

Voting takes place at the Sagaponack School on Tuesday from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m. ­