Noyac Civic Council Audience Asks Questions on Sag Harbor School Budget

Sag Harbor superintendent Katy Graves presents to the Noyac Civic Council on April 9, 2019. Christine Sampson photo

Questions on the Sag Harbor School District’s proposed 2019-2020 budget emerged during Tuesday’s Noyac Civic Council meeting, on topics ranging from the need for a new sport-utility vehicle to the Sag Harbor Learning Center to why expenses are going up when it appears on the outset that enrollment projections are trending downward.

Sag Harbor superintendent Katy Graves and business administrator Dr. Philip Kenter handled the inquiries on the $43.4 million budget plan, which has not yet been finalized by the Sag Harbor School Board. The board is expected to do so on April 16, one day before New York State’s deadline for schools to formally adopt budgets to present to the public for the May 21 vote.

“There are a fiscally conservative group,” Ms. Graves said Wednesday of the Noyac Civic Council. “They ask a lot of pointed questions about the budget. I find it sharpens our view of the budget. It gives us tremendous feedback to make us better at our jobs.”

Ms. Graves and Dr. Kenter told their audience of about 15 that under the current plan — including a 3-percent tax levy increase, which is lower than the district’s maximum allowable tax levy increase of 4.56 percent — school taxes would increase for Southampton Town taxpayers by about $136 for a house valued at $1 million. In East Hampton Town, for the same house, the tax increase would be about $150. STAR rebates of up to $298 in East Hampton and $264 in Southampton are also available for those who meet certain income criteria.

Multiple people questioned the district’s need for a new Chevrolet Suburban SUV school bus, which administrators have placed into a separate ballot resolution along with the purchase of a regular school bus that would replace an older one with high mileage. Ms. Graves explained the SUV bus — at around $74,922 — would be to service the Sagaponack school route, paid for through revenue from the district’s bus contract with Sagaponack. She said it’s the wish of the Sagaponack school board that children are picked up closer to their front doors rather than their streets, which means traditional school buses would have a harder time navigating driveways and three-point turns.

“I don’t dictate their policy,” Ms. Graves said, “but do we want to walk away from a couple of hundred thousand dollars of revenue? They’re paying us money to do this.”

Sandi Kruel, a former school board member, asked Ms. Graves if the bus proposition could be split into two parts — one for the large school bus and one for the SUV bus.

“I would vote ‘no’ on that proposition because of that Suburban,” Ms. Kruel said. “I think by you doing this, you’re backing us up into a corner and making us choose.”

But Ms. Graves said it was too late to make a change. The school board voted 7-0 on April 1, following an executive session, to add the SUV bus to the ballot proposition along with the regular school bus. She said the purchase would not directly impact taxpayers.

“We have the money in the transportation reserve,” she said. “Having a 4×4 is handy as hell … and it’s our bus. We get to use it for every other thing.”

Harbord Gray, who has lived in Noyac more than 70 years, said he thought the district should do more to seek support from community businesses, banks in particular.

“Here there’s more money than you can shake a stick at,” Mr. Gray told Ms. Graves during her presentation.

“We have gotten fabulous donations throughout the year, but I will do that,” Ms. Graves replied.

Other issues crept into the conversation. Council president Elena Loreto questioned where more than $1 million already spent outside the scope of the bond referendum on repairs and renovations at the Sag Harbor Learning Center, formerly Stella Maris, had come from.

“Where it came from was about seven unfilled positions for months and months and months” in the 2017-2018 school year, Ms. Graves replied. “We got to the end of the year and had captured savings. We did a transfer into contractual funds for flooring, asbestos abatement and [security].”

Another resident asked why the budget keep rising when it seems like enrollment trends are heading downward. The district currently has 941 students in kindergarten through 12th grade, though that number is projected to be 804 by 2027. Ms. Graves acknowledged while professional data projections showed the number of students in Sag Harbor will likely decrease over the next several years, “we’ve stayed very, very stable in our enrollment right now” because of children who come to Sag Harbor from other areas, who are not factored into those projections. Sag Harbor has 55 of those students currently, Ms. Graves said.

The district is also projecting just over $1 million in revenue from those students’ tuition, she said. Sag Harbor’s recently approved tuition rates are $25,088 for students in grades seven through 12 and $19,277 for students in kindergarten through sixth grade.

Following the meeting, some said they still wanted more information.

“I thought it was not transparent enough. I do have a lot of questions remaining,” Elfriede Neuman, a 30-year Noyac resident, said after the presentation. She was among those who objected to the SUV bus purchase.

“I don’t think the senior citizens are taken into account,” she said.

Matt Burns, another Noyac resident, said he thought Ms. Graves and Dr. Kenter did a good job on their presentation. “We’ll see how the vote goes. That’s the acid test,” he said.

After the meeting, Charles Neuman, the council’s president emeritus, called for clearer information to help people become more informed.

“Organized it into accurate information,” he said. “If we’re a bunch of dummies and don’t know anything, maybe we vote ‘no.’ When all your questions are being answered, we all know what is going on.”