Sag Harbor Projects Rise in Spending at Individual Schools in 2019-2020 Budget

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Pierson Middle-High School as seen on March 27, 2019. Christine Sampson photo

Spending on supplies and teaching staff for the Sag Harbor School District’s three campuses — including the anticipated opening of the Sag Harbor Learning Center, formerly Stella Maris — is projected to increase in the 2019-2020 budget, according to budget summaries presented during Monday’s meeting of the Sag Harbor School Board.

While specific, line-by-line budgets have not been released either to the school board or to the public, administrators representing Sag Harbor Elementary School and Pierson Middle-High School, as well as the special education department, assured board members that all current programs will be maintained in the proposed budget.

Line-item budgets have been released for other areas of the district, including athletics, the transportation department, central administration and the maintenance department. A request for more information on the individual schools’ budgets was only partly fulfilled Tuesday, with a senior administrator saying they were not complete yet.

“We’re still working on it. We’re close, but we’re not quite there yet,” Dr. Philip Kenter, Sag Harbor’s business administrator, said Tuesday.

Matthew Malone, principal at Sag Harbor Elementary School, told the school board Monday that the proposed $6.89 million for staffing and $263,384 for equipment, supplies, textbooks and other items would “continue the strong programing that exists in our classrooms, identify costs to advance the programming … and support the changing needs of our district.” The elementary staffing costs would rise about 6.7 percent, while the rest of the school’s budget would rise 4.75 percent.

One of the needs, Mr. Malone said, is a teacher for students considered “English language learners” who need considerable support learning a new language. Mr. Malone, along with Pierson High School principal Jeff Nichols and Pierson Middle School principal Brittany Carriero, are asking the district to hire one new full-time teacher to be shared between the elementary, middle and high schools. The proposed salary for that teacher is $63,268.

More for Sag Harbor Learning Center

Included in the proposal is money for supplies and staffing for the new Sag Harbor Learning Center, where the prekindergarten will be housed starting next year. On Tuesday, Dr. Kenter told The Expressthat out of the proposed $99,319 budget for Sag Harbor Elementary School for supplies, $1,600 has been earmarked for the Sag Harbor Learning Center.

“This is something we’re very excited about,” Mr. Malone said. “There are some supplies that will be needed to outfit the new classrooms, and some staffing needs as well.”

He acknowledged the costs are in addition to the moneys already laid out for construction and renovations of the facility. He said because “there’s a lot of enthusiasm around the move,” he is expecting having four sections of pre-kindergarten next year instead of three.

The salary for a new school nurse at the Sag Harbor Learning Center is proposed at $69,774. A part-time teacher would be made full-time at a salary of $67,730, and a part-time teacher assistant would be hired at a salary of $22,561.

Superintendent Katy Graves told the school board at a recent prekindergarten orientation, “we got a loud ‘yahoo’ from the audience” when discussing the Learning Center, which, in addition to housing the pre-K, will also likely be home to a paid daycare service.

“You guys hear all the worries and the fretting,” she told the school board. “They could care less. They’re just so excited to see the images and know there’s potential day care available. To know that this is open for their children was so exciting for them.”

Other Budget Items

At Pierson, in addition to the new teacher, Mr. Nichols said the school would need to spend about $7,000 more on fees for the International Baccalaureate program, which is a rigorous track of academics that prepares students for college-level course work. He also said there is a need to spend more than $11,000 more on new textbooks, including about $3,000 for new math and computer science materials.

Spending on supplies, equipment, textbooks and other costs to operate Pierson would increase to $441,816, a 4.36-percent jump. Spending on salaries for teachers and other staff members would rise to more than $8.1 million, an increase of 3.79 percent.

Dr. Carleen Meers, who oversees the pupil personnel services department and manages the special education budget, said receiving federal and state funding will help the district “minimize the fiscal impact” of increases in out-of-district tuition, supplies and equipment. Those increases include $50,000 more for tuition, about $11,000 for supplies and $4,650 for equipment.

The proposed special education budget decreases funding for textbooks, conferences and contractual services for a total drop of more than $23,000. The budget would increase by 3.9 percent to $1.13 million, with staffing costs increasing by 2.86 percent to $3.11 million.

“We want to do the smallest thing for the biggest effect,” Dr. Meers said. “We want to close the gap to access to the general education curriculum, and do it here in our community.”

The district’s Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) expenses are expected to rise sharply — up almost $400,000 to $1.6 million. Dr. Kenter attributed most of that to increases in services for students with disabilities, which is expected to go up more than $300,000. BOCES also includes services such as occupational education, research and planning.

The total cost of benefits for district staff is projected to decrease by 1.84 percent, or about $194,000, down to $10.34 million. Those benefits include health and dental insurance, disability insurance, retirement system contributions and others.

Tax Levy Options

Dr. Kenter on Monday also fulfilled a request the school board asked of him during the March 11 meeting: a wider range of options for possible tax-levy increases.

The district could go as high as a 4.56-percent tax-levy increase, which is different from the “2 percent tax cap” most people are accustomed to because of factors like real estate growth in school district borders and budget exclusions for debt on capital projects. On March 11, the board reviewed the 4.56 percent option as well as 4.25, percent, 4 percent, 3.75 percent and 3.5 percent. The farther down the district goes, the lower the tax levy drops; the effect is to ease the burden on taxpayers with each downward tick.

With the maximum 4.56-percent tax-levy increase, Dr. Kenter explained, Sag Harbor could raise an additional $1.7 million in tax revenue from the community over the current year’s budget. Dropping that to a 2.5-percent tax levy increase lowers that amount to $942,169. Further reducing it to 1.75 percent means $660,460 more in tax revenue for Sag Harbor, and a 1 percent increase means $378,751 more.

The board also got a look at a zero-increase option, which would mean keeping the residents’ tax burden flat. Doing so, projections show, would likely mean taxes go down by a few dollars. Deliberately choosing a zero-increase option, he said, is different from an “austerity budget” situation where a community votes down a budget twice and a school district is forced to keep its tax levy flat; the same restrictions, such as a prohibition on purchasing certain types of equipment and spending on non-critical services, don’t apply.

Dr. Kenter showed the school board a slide titled “Selecting a Tax Levy that Is Near the Tax Levy Limit.”

“As your business official, I would highly encourage you to consider this,” Dr. Kenter said.

He explained how going to the maximum or just below the maximum would help the district protect its reserve funds that are designated for emergencies and specific purposes; help the district protect its Moody’s bond rating, which is just one notch below the highest possible rating, which would in turn enable the district to save on interest rates whenever it borrows money; and would “protect the continuation of all student programs and staff.”

Board member Chris Tice proposed taking a closer look at areas where the district is taking in more revenue than it anticipated, such as tuition from students from other districts. She recommended sticking to this year’s budget “and not look at this as a windfall to spending.”

“We were being conservative,” she said, “but if there are a handful of places, and it’s applied to the budget next year, then it’s a way to keep programming and not increase the budget.”

Ms. Graves urged the board “to consider not looking at that revenue as a given.”

“A private school opens out here, or something happens with our programming, that can be very flighty,” she said. “Two districts have choice. Programming can change at East Hampton and they can shift over to East Hampton. Parents’ economics can change and they might not want to pull their checkbooks out anymore.”

Board member Susan Lamontagne agreed with Ms. Tice and said she thinks “there are plenty of places where it seems to me we can sharpen our pencils.”

“It’s appropriate that when we are doing well, we do give back to the taxpayers and not spend everything that’s coming in,” Ms. Lamontagne said. “When we do need it, I think when we give back, it makes it more likely when there’s a downturn they’ll step up. It’s time to give back. We’re doing well.”

The school board is expected to take a look at its whole budget — all departments and campuses together — at its next meeting, planned for Monday, April 1, at 6:30 p.m. in the Pierson library.

Ms. Tice urged the board and the administration to explore the possible financial impacts of transportation and staffing solutions to the problems posed by teachers leaving school early for sports programs. However, board president Diana Kolhoff said the committee handling that subject would not be convening prior to the school board’s next meeting, so the board would have to proceed without concrete options to weigh.

2019-2020 School Calendar Approved

The first day of school in the 2019-2020 school year will be Wednesday, September 4, and the last day of school will be Friday, June 26, according to a calendar adopted by the school board Monday.

An unusual calendar circumstance led to a two-week-long winter break, from December 23 through 27 and December 30 through January 3.

The full calendar is available online through the BoardDocs system at sagharborschools.org, under “Board of Education Information.”

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