Proposed $43.4M Sag Harbor Schools Budget Will Include 3-Percent Levy Increase

Pierson Middle-High School.

A fiery discussion between Sag Harbor School Board members on Monday yielded a conclusion on just how much the district should increase its tax levy in next year’s budget — but questions remain over how the district will close a gap between revenue and expenses in the proposed $43.4 million spending plan.

That figure represents a 3.64-percent increase in year-over-year spending for 2019-2020, or a jump of about $1.52 million over the current year’s $41.88 million budget. Superintendent Katy Graves called it “a solid, conservative number” while acknowledging there is more work to do.

“There will be a gap between the tax levy increase and the overall budget for the district that we will need to make up,” she said Wednesday. “The administrative team is going to look proactively” at places to trim the budget “because the board asked us to do that,” she continued.

“I think the recommendation for the board will be to look to our reserves because that is what they are there for,” Ms. Graves said. “In other words, we’ll prepare for both — programming, but also for where in the reserves we can make up the budget difference.”

When it came time to decide how much to increase the tax levy — the amount collected from taxpayers to pay for the budget — the school board weighed options ranging from 2.5 percent to 3.5 percent. It settled on 3 percent in a split vote of 4-3. Board president Diana Kolhoff, vice president Jordana Sobey, and members Susan Schaefer and Brian DeSesa supported the measure, while board members Chris Tice, Susan Lamontagne and Alex Kriegsman voted against it.

The 3-percent tax levy increase differs from the “2 percent tax cap” language used by state officials because of factors such as bustling real estate growth and exclusions for debt on capital projects.

A video recording of Monday’s meeting is not available due to “technical difficulties,” school officials said this week. Several board members recapped their remarks on Tuesday and Wednesday, noting they spoke on their own behalf and not for the board.

“It was the result of really good discussion amongst the board, even though the vote was 4-3,” Ms. Sobey said Wednesday. “It was coming to as close as kind of a meeting of the minds as we could.”

She presented legal research to the board that suggests that if the district goes below the tax levy this year, it can go beyond its capped tax levy next year up to 1.5 percent.

“Based on that, I was okay with going up to 1.5 percent below the tax cap, knowing that there was all this talk about how there was the compounding effect of going below the cap and leaving it on the table year-to-year,” she said.

Ms. Kolhoff said she felt 3 percent “represented a nice middle ground” and that she felt enough information had been presented.

“Our administration did a great job of summarizing any significant changes in the overall budget,” she said in an email. “We discussed all of the highlights, and had an opportunity to review the detailed line items. That’s not to say every detail of the budget has been decided.”

Mr. Kriegsman said Tuesday that he tried to negotiate a 2.75-percent levy increase. He said he was concerned about residents who lost state and local property tax deductions under the new federal tax law.

“I think it’s important to note that even though I wanted it to be lower than 3 percent, that is by far the most significant amount below the tax cap we have ever been,” he said. “I think that’s still a good number that we can be comfortable telling the taxpayers we are doing what we can to keep the increase to a minimum.”

Ms. Lamontagne said she agreed with Mr. Kriegsman’s initial suggestion and then pushed for “even lower.”

“I have a number of concerns,” she said Wednesday. “I really don’t think we have really been doing our due diligence in our budget cycle. We were not getting the level of detail that we have been getting in the past. … I think there were probably some things that we can take out of the budget that are wants and not needs. I wanted us to have a discussion about where we could do better, how we could sharpen our pencils.”

Ms. Tice said she called for postponing the tax levy decision, saying she wanted more information. Her motion was turned down, as it was determined the board members’ schedules would not align for another meeting before their next regularly scheduled one on April 16.

“I feel it’s imperative to continue to support the excellent programs in the classroom and make sure we have enough funds to continue to build on the success in our wonderful school district,” she said Tuesday. “The budgeting process has been the least transparent process I have seen and has raised more questions than provided answers for me. I am hopeful in our April 16 meeting that the board and the public have the opportunity to engage in a robust conversation about what the final budget proposition should look like.”

Ms. Graves said the information differs from what board members had in the past because the district recently switched to a new software system that changed the format of how numbers are presented.

“Our budget codes no longer are what they used to be,” she said. “We have also have had changes in personnel. There’s a lot of manpower that goes into having all that.”

A few community members who spoke up on Monday recapped their comments with The Sag Harbor Expresson Tuesday.

Elena Loreto, the president of the Noyac Civic Council, urged the board to “apply the reserve funds that they have. They have several and they’re at the max.” She said she told the board the maximum tax levy increase would be “unsustainable” and questioned the need for certain items, including the proposed $30,000 indoor turf athletic surface mat and stipends for school building communications representatives.

“Money is like manure,” Ms. Loreto said on Tuesday. “If you keep it stacked up in a big pile, it smells. If you spread it around, it does some good.”

She continued, “I said the kids are doing well academically and athletically, but you’re killing the taxpayers. You’re forcing young families out of the district who can’t pay the taxes. Families can’t move in. Enrollment is going down, but taxes are going up.”

She also said the public and even the board itself need more information ahead of budget meetings.

“We don’t need it after,” Ms. Loreto said. “They really have to break this down further than what is given.”

Sandi Kruel, a parent and former school board member, agreed. On Tuesday, she said the lack of a line-by-line final budget available to the public was “an insult to people who actually know budgets.”

“It is your responsibility as elected officials to follow through and have enough information,” she said. “I’m devastated that my school district is in this shape. In 23 years of watching a budget I have seen a 5-2 vote, a 6-1 — never a 4-3.”

Ms. Kolhoff responded in an email by saying “it takes quite a while to build and review the budget on an annual basis. It is why we start the process in January. The public will have time to review the budget in its entirety prior to voting on it in May.”

Ms. Kruel also said she felt the board disrespected her when she was speaking at the podium during the workshop.

Ms. Kolhoff replied, “Historically, I think the tone of some of the public discourse in certain circles is often detrimental to retaining leadership and effective governance teams.”