Sag Harbor School Board Wants More Budget Options

Dr. Philip Kenter, the school business administrator, gives a budget presentation. Christine Sampson photo

Sag Harbor School District officials have some math homework to do.

During a school budget workshop on Monday, the Sag Harbor School Board began to weigh potential tax-levy increase options for the proposed 2019-2020 school budget. Some board members said they wanted more numbers to consider and tasked school business administrator Dr. Philip Kenter with calculating more options in time for the next budget workshop on March 25.

Dr. Kenter explained to the board that Sag Harbor can boost its tax levy — the amount of money to be raised by taxes from the community — by a maximum of 4.56 percent this year under the state’s tax-cap rules. That differs from the “2 percent tax cap” that people are used to hearing about because factors such as the school district’s capital debt and the rising real estate assessments within district borders allow for exemptions.

But rather than immediately commit to a 4.56-percent tax levy increase, the board looked at multiple options Dr. Kenter had calculated. Those options were 4.25 percent, 4 percent, 3.75 percent and 3.5 percent.

The district has not yet released a total projected budget proposal.

The discussion Monday took a serious tone when it was pointed out that some board members had asked several weeks ago for a zero-increase tax levy option, which was not provided on Monday. Dr. Kenter said he would provide it in a future presentation.

A zero-increase tax levy budget is “tantamount to a contingency budget,” he said, which is what a school district must face when the community votes down the budget proposal. A contingency budget means the district cannot buy any new equipment, except in the case of special education equipment, and extracurricular, arts and sports programs may be cut, depending on how much tax revenue is at stake.

On Wednesday, Dr. Kenter clarified that if a district voluntarily chooses a zero tax-levy increase, and the community approves it, then equipment purchases can still be made. Budget cuts are still likely, but the district can plan ahead for them when developing a budget proposal with a zero tax-levy increase.

“The difference would have to be made up with fund balance, reduction in educational programs or a combination of both,” Superintendent Katy Graves said.

On Monday, some on the board were unsatisfied with the options.

“My expectation … was not that we were going to look within 1 percentage and shave quarters off,” said board member Chris Tice, who cited changes in the federal tax law “that created tax burdens across this district that people are increasingly struggling to afford” as a reason she feels the district needs to be extra cautious this year.

“I don’t feel like we’ve seen a breadth of options that allow us to explore and pressure test,” Ms. Tice continued.

Board member Susan Lamontagne said she wanted to see options for tax levy increases around 2 percent.

“There’s really not much difference” in what was presented, she said. Going lower “might be a good way to hold our feet to the fire and see if there are places where we can do better. People are really going to get hit this year and it’s time to see if we can do better watching the store.”

Dr. Kenter replied by saying the district is “on a tightrope.”

“It’s an expense-driven budget. We don’t want to be short because that’s problematic,” he said.

Board member Alex Kriegsman also said “we ought to see some lower options here.”

“I don’t think we’re doing this job properly by taking 4.5 percent as a baseline,” he said. “Our finances are in great shape. I think we ought to be more aggressive in keeping these increases lower.”

Ms. Graves emphasized the loss of tax revenue would have to be offset by budget cuts or using reserve moneys.

“Eighty percent of our district is people and programming,” she said. “We take from our reserves or we take from our programs, and programs are people. You just want to go very carefully. I think our community stands by our school district. They understand that these costs are incrementally going up. … We can show you all those configurations, but it has to come from somewhere.”

Ultimately the board asked Dr. Kenter to provide tax-levy increase options at 1 percent, 1.75 percent and 2.5 percent.

Earlier in the budget workshop, athletic director Eric Bramoff presented a proposed spending plan for sports, physical education and wellness programs.

He pitched a big ticket item: an indoor, grass-like mat that simulates a field sports playing surface, which he proposed for the middle school gymnasium. With a cost of about $30,000, the mat would be useful for both athletics and gym classes, he said. It could be rolled up and stored when not in use, he said, and would also ease overuse of the grass athletic field out back.

Mr. Bramoff also pitched two new commercial-grade treadmills to replace two that are ready to be trashed, as well as two new “Expresso” interactive fitness bikes, which he said have been very popular with the whole school.

The athletics budget also adds money for a girls’ golf team, to be a shared program hosted by the Southampton School District.

Mr. Bramoff and Dr. Kenter projected a 5.4-percent increase in this segment of the budget, up by $43,924 to a total of $853,636.