Sag Harbor School Board Makes Last-Minute Changes, Chooses $42.9M Budget

Jeff Peters asking questions of the school board at Tuesday night's meeting. Christine Sampson photos

Presented with two options on Tuesday night, the original $43.4 million budget proposal and a new $42.9 million spending plan, the Sag Harbor School Board unanimously agreed to present the lower of the two options to the community for the May 21 budget vote.

“Because we’ve been very aggressive on this budget and the administration has done a really good job of tightening it up … I would support ‘option two,’” school board president Diana Kolhoff said, and the rest of the board expressed agreement for various reasons.

For the lower budget option, administrators identified nearly $490,000 in items to cut from the first budget draft, including $300,000 in “security initiatives” that had not yet been defined publicly along with money for hiring contingency staff members in case those positions were needed mid-year. Superintendent Katy Graves said the district could tap into one of its end-of-year surplus accounts, called the “unassigned fund balance,” if the need for those items arose in the future. The school board would have to approve budget transfers for any money spent that way. Ms. Graves said making these moves would also help the district protect its high Moody’s bond rating, which allows the district to save money on interest payments whenever it has to borrow money.

Board member Brian DeSesa agreed with Ms. Kolhoff, saying, “We would have greater control over security because it would come before the board at a later date.”

Board member Susan Lamontagne said she had concerns that more savings could still be found, particularly when it came to transportation, but said the second budget option “makes complete sense and I appreciate all the work that everybody did to identify that.”

And while she ultimately supported the lower budget option, board member Chris Tice said she still wanted more choices.

“I’m not happy that these are my two choices, but I would go with ‘option two’ and urge that we be as transparent as possible,” she said. “If we’re moving around a lot of money after the budget is passed … then it’s hard to have a certain level of confidence.”

The board on Tuesday  remained steadfast on an additional ballot proposition to ask the community for permission to spend money from its transportation reserve fund on a new full-size school bus and a “fleet Suburban” Chevrolet sport-utility vehicle. Some community members voiced opposition to the purchase of the SUV — which has been identified as a component of a possible transportation contract renewal with the Sagaponack Common School District — but the two vehicles have been combined into one proposition for the Sag Harbor ballot, which cannot be modified because such proposals have legal posting requirements ahead of time in local newspapers and on their websites. The board needs voter approval to spend money from this particular transportation fleet reserve fund, which Ms. Graves said was established by referendum in 2017, and which she said is fed by money from Sag Harbor’s transportation contracts with the Sagaponack and Wainscott school districts.

“We have $2 million in our fleet reserve. This does not affect our taxpayers. Our taxpayers are not paying for this vehicle,” Ms. Graves said of the proposed Suburban. “…It hopefully will help flourish another transportation contract as well, but also, the [Sag Harbor] school district will own this.” She also said it would come in handy in extremely inclement weather situations in case students are in precarious situations and need transportation assistance.

Ms. Tice asked whether the district’s transportation contracts would still be profitable for Sag Harbor if the district purchased the SUV; Ms. Graves said it would be, and that that revenue is separate from student tuition from Sagaponack students. Ms. Graves also said it would yield some savings in operational costs.

Ms. Kolhoff asked whether declining to purchase the SUV would lead to the chance that Sagaponack would not use Sag Harbor as its transportation contractor.

“It’s very important to them,” Ms. Graves said. “Different [school] boards have different priorities.”

Former school board member Sandi Kruel speaking on Tuesday night at the board meeting. Christine Sampson photo

When it was the community’s turn to speak, Jeff Peters, Sharon Botto and Sandi Kruel objected to the purchase of the SUV.

“It’s not being fair to taxpayers now because we’re paying more money now to bring these kids,” Mr. Peters said, referring to the Sagaponack transportation contract.

“It doesn’t cost the taxpayers any money. It actually generates revenue for the district,” Ms. Graves countered.

“Did you promise Sagaponack that we would pick them up at their front door?” Mr. Peters asked.

“That contract is still under negotiation,” Ms. Graves replied.

Ms. Botto, who is employed by a private company as a bus driver, said, “I don’t want to find out we need two more Suburbans because we need to accommodate Sagaponack.”

Ms. Kruel challenged the ballot proposition as a whole.

“For me, it should have been two different propositions,” she said. “I am not convinced that our weather is that horrendous — with two inches of snow this year, with no water by the school district and with a fire department that is absolutely amazing and outstanding that would be here in about two seconds to help us out — that we need an SUV for that. You need to give the public a choice to vote for the bus that our students need and to vote for the SUV that would supplement our income and negotiations with another district.”

The school board on Tuesday also made a last-minute decision to slash $30,000 from the budget to eliminate the purchase of a synthetic-grass indoor playing field surface, which athletic director Eric Bramoff pitched a few weeks ago in his department’s budget. Some board members wanted to have more in-depth conversations about the synthetic turf gym mat before committing to its purchase.

Ms. Tice said she was uncomfortable keeping in an expense line for something that may ultimately be rejected.

“I don’t think we should put in the budget something that hasn’t been vetted,” Ms. Tice said.

The board ultimately decided to further reduce the budget and send the possibility of buying the synthetic turf playing surface to the district’s Educational Facilities Planning Committee for evaluation.