The Sag Harbor Board of Education meeting on Monday night was a final chance for the public to hear about the proposed budget for the 2021-22 school year, and board members remained elated about how it all came together in what was a challenging and unprecedented year.
School Business Administrator Jennifer Buscemi pointed out that the district not only retained all of the programs and services from this school year, but was able to add new offerings as well — most notably the funding of a full-day pre-k program at the Sag Harbor Learning Center — while staying under the tax levy cap, something it has done for the last decade. The tax levy increase is the lowest it has been in seven years.
The proposed budget of $44,871,539 represents a budget-to-budget increase of 1.22 percent, or $539,116. It represents a yearly increase of $57.80 for the median home value for Southampton Town residents, and $59.73 for East Hampton Town residents and is available to view at sagharborschools.org.
The budget vote and election will be held on Tuesday, May 18, in the Pierson High School gymnasium from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Absentee ballots must be received by the district clerk no later than 5 p.m. on May 18.
There are three propositions included as well. The first, Proposition 2, would, if approved, authorize the Board of Education to establish a capital reserve fund for future renovations and capital projects, specifically for projects identified as improvements rather than time-sensitive repairs. Funding would be allocated from unappropriated fund balance from the previous year. Funding for the reserve is capped at $15 million. Residents would approve the use of funds for any specific projects in a separate vote.
Proposition 3 would allow for the purchase of a new school bus, at the cost of $58,766, using funds from the transportation fleet capital reserve. Proposition 4 would authorize the district clerk to conduct voter registration during school hours.
Voters will also be asked to elect two members to the Board of Education to fill the positions held by Jordana Sobey and Susan Schaefer. Ms. Sobey and Ryan Winter are running unopposed for those seats.
Board member Sandi Kruel praised the district and school officials on this year’s budget process.
“I think this is an amazing budget in a COVID year,” she said. “I just want to give a huge kudos to everyone, because the 1.22-percent increase is absolutely amazing, and it’s because of the team we have leading our district. It was an outstanding job by everybody to make this happen. I’m personally proud of this budget.”
Unanimous praise for the budget gave way to more tense discussions about the district’s soon-to-expire contract with Mashashimuet Park for use of athletic facilities. During the first public input period, Sag Harbor residents Kevin Dehler, Kevin Martin, and Tracey Cavaniola weighed in, as they have done in past meetings, to express their frustration with the athletic facilities at the park. The group also expressed their desire to see some of their concerns addressed as the district is in the middle of negotiating a new contract with the park. The current five-year deal expires on June 30.
Superintendent Jeff Nichols toured the park recently with several of the concerned parents, along with Athletic Director Eric Bramoff, Elementary School Principal Matt Malone and Middle High School Principal Brittany Carriero. He said the district is not allowed to publicly discuss the details of ongoing contract negotiations, but tried to reassure the parents that their concerns were being heard.
“The issues addressed are included in the district’s approach to negotiations as it relates to moving forward with the park board and what we’d like to see in the new contract,” he said.
The back and forth between the board and members of the public became tense at times, as Mr. DeSesa had to repeatedly reiterate that the district was not allowed to publicly discuss the details of its negotiations with the park.
Mr. Nichols had plenty of good news to share as part of his superintendent’s report. Guidance released from the New York State Department of Health on May 10 raised the number of people allowed to gather at large events from 200 to 500, which he said will help make events like the prom and graduation seem like more of a “return to normal.” He added that the district was still in the process of planning and putting out information about what form the events will take, adding that other COVID-19 safety measures will still be in place.
Mr. Nichols also discussed the possibility that the high school would serve as a point of distribution for the COVID vaccine, in light of the news on May 11 that the FDA approved the Pfizer vaccine for use in children ages 12 to 15. The Pfizer vaccine had recently earned approval for use in children ages 16 and up. Mr. Nichols said the district has been in touch with the Suffolk County Department of Health about serving as a vaccine site for students and families in the community, and said the district is in the process of putting together a survey to try and get a “baseline reading” for how many people would be interested in getting vaccinated at the school.
In response to a board member question, Mr. Nichols said that he did not anticipate the state making the COVID-19 vaccine a requirement for school attendance in the fall, especially when it is still under emergency use designation, but he speculated that the guidance could change once the vaccine receives a more permanent designation. In response to another query from a board member, Mr. Nichols said that if survey results indicate reluctance from parents to have their children vaccinated at the school, the district might partner with other nearby districts to offer the vaccine.
Mr. Nichols also took time to congratulate board member Sandi Kruel, who received special recognition from the New York State School Boards Association for her commitment to extensive professional development. Ms. Kruel was first elected to the Board of Education in 1999 and has served a total of 12 years on the board.
“During that time, she has been a tremendous advocate for the school,” Mr. Nichols said. “And she’s always been an advocate for the students.”