By Christine Sampson
The Sag Harbor School Board on Monday decided to build a tax levy increase of 3.49 percent into its $39.87 million 2017-18 budget proposal after hearing certain major expenses, including the Pierson Middle-High School budget and the cost of athletics and special education, were increasing at rates the district could easily absorb.
The school board could have opted for a tax levy increase of as much as 3.87 percent, which was the recommendation of superintendent Katy Graves based upon what she said were her “concerns on the national level” related to the potential for a voucher system to be enacted.
A school voucher system, which is supported by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, is a form of school choice that has the potential to divert public school funding to private or parochial schools by giving parents the option to send their children elsewhere. Regulations already exist requiring public school districts to provide busing for children who attend private schools, such as the Ross School, the Hayground School and others.
Going to a higher tax levy increase would mean the Sag Harbor School District would have to rely less on tapping the money it anticipates having left over at the end of this school year to offset next year’s budget.
“I would rather protect our fund balance by going to 3.87 percent this year,” Ms. Graves said. “Right now, our savings account is very important to me because I don’t know where we’ll go if we have to go to a voucher system in the next few years.”
But the school board — though it was missing two members — ultimately departed from Ms. Graves’ recommendation.
“I think we need to be more conservative,” board member Theresa Samot said, and board member Sandi Kruel agreed.
“I hadn’t thought about our new education secretary and her plans, so I appreciate being reminded,” board president Diana Kolhoff said, “but I agree that we don’t necessarily have to go to the full count because we don’t have to cut programs.”
School business administrator Jennifer Buscemi had presented six tax levy increase options for the board to consider, ranging from 2.99 percent up to the limit of 3.87 percent. That figure is greater than the “2 percent tax cap” language many people are familiar with because of factors such as busy real estate development and rising assessments within the village boundaries.
The decision to go to a 3.49 percent tax levy increase means a projected approximate average tax increase of $179 for East Hampton Town residents and $165 for Southampton Town residents for next school year.
The tax levy discussion followed a presentation on the Pierson Middle-High School budget by its principal, Jeff Nichols, who said while spending on textbooks and out-of-district tuition will decrease, while spending on supplies, equipment, teacher salaries, conferences and contractual expenses will increase. Overall, the cost to run Pierson will rise by approximately $213,500, or about 2.57 percent.
The budget includes additional resources for students for whom English is not a native language. “We just have more needs in terms of services we need to provide,” Mr. Nichols said.
The school is also seeing a big jump in its International Baccalaureate (IB) program enrollment, which comes with an increase in spending on the associated end-of-year exams, and the possible inclusion of money for the IB Middle Years Programme, if the organization approves Pierson’s participation.
“Based on the multiyear goals we’ve established in years past, this budget meets everything we’ve laid out for the foreseeable future,” Mr. Nichols said.
Barbara Bekermus, director of pupil personnel services, said she is planning for the possible launch of a second section of the self-contained special education class at Sag Harbor Elementary School, depending upon whether other school districts contract with the district to send students here. The cost of salary increases and the possible hiring of a new teacher will be partially offset by lower spending on supplies, textbooks, and out-of-district tuition for Sag Harbor students.
Athletic director Eric Bramoff said the athletics budget will increase by about $9,400, with money budgeted for more exercise equipment, more hours for the athletic trainer and a coach for the new junior varsity boys’ volleyball team.
School officials also put a $50,000 placeholder in the budget for the hiring of a communications consultant through the Board of Cooperative Educational Services. The position is intended as a part-time role for someone who would update the school website, send out timely email blasts and perform other tasks.
The school board is expected to formally adopt the budget on April 19 to put up for the public vote, which is on May 16.
AFTER-SCHOOL PROGRAM DISCUSSED
During Monday’s board meeting, several people who feared for the future of the Sag Harbor Youth Advocacy and Resource Development (YARD) program spoke up in support of its preservation. YARD director Debbie Skinner has announced her retirement at the end of the school year.
“I am concerned that the after-school program might not be in the budget when Mrs. Skinner retires. I feel that it’s something you really have to think about,” Janet Grossman, a retired Pierson teacher and president of the Youth Resource Center, told the school board. “The kids really need decompression time. They need time to relax and be themselves. There is value in an unstructured program.”
She said an average of 83 students per day used the program between October and February.
“The students who are here until five o’clock are the younger ones. Without an organized program, what will they be doing?” said Michelle Wilks, the project coordinator for SAFE in Sag Harbor. “Will they be going home to an empty house? … We really encourage the growth of summer and after school programs, not the elimination.”
Ms. Graves responded to say the district has yet to make a decision about the YARD program, since it had only been about a week since administrators had learned of Ms. Skinner’s retirement plans.
“I don’t want anyone to have the idea that this is something the board is not thoughtful about, but they did want to look to their professional administrators to get their recommendations, so that’s why we’re not giving you any feedback tonight,” Ms. Graves said.
ELEMENTARY CAFETERIA EXPANSION
The school district is also working on a plan to establish a lunch program at Sag Harbor Elementary School, Ms. Buscemi said Monday.
The district is budgeting $15,000 to launch a program that would expand the school’s current pizza day each week to include a two- or three-day-per-week system in which cold food items such as sandwiches, fruits and vegetables would be offered for students to buy.
“We’d start really slow,” Ms. Buscemi said. “Right now, it’s a matter of transporting and what’s available. Cold lunch items, boxed lunches – we’re not looking to offer anything hot at this point.”
School board members requested further details at a future meeting and suggested surveying parents.