Weigh In on Bridgehampton’s $10 Mil School Budget

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By Marianna Levine

On May 19, Bridgehampton residents will be voting on the $10 million 2009-2010 school budget as well as a full slate of school board candidates. The official presentation and final formal budget hearing will take place directly after the “Meet the Candidates” forum at Bridgehampton School on May 11 starting at 6 p.m. 

This year’s budget preparation was delayed by both the sudden departure of the recently appointed business administrator Phil Kentner in December, as well as negotiations with the school’s teachers about their contract. The teachers, who had worked without a contract for two years, finally ratified their new contract on April 22 allowing interim business administrator George Chesterton to finalize the proposed 2009-2010 spending plan.

Chesterton gave a lengthy and detailed account of the coming year’s school budget during the BOE’s April workshop. The majority of the budget is allocated for salaries as well as basic facility maintenance, hence having to wait out the teachers’ contract negotiations prior to finalizing the proposed plan.

“One of the tough decisions the board made in order to remain fiscally responsible this year was to eliminate two teaching positions,” school superintendent Dr. Dianne Youngblood noted.

As proposed, the 2009-2010 budget will be $10,012,857, a 1.41 percent increase of $139,159 from the previous year. There was a $768,939, or 33.11 percent, decrease in non-tax levy revenues which is why, Chesterton explained at the last school board workshop, Bridgehampton residents will see an 8.68 percent increase in their school tax levy. There was a 57.57 percent loss in services to other districts, and a 71.90 percent loss in interest revenue for the school.

State aid also went from $765,370 to $757,259, or decreased by 1.06 percent. Teachers’ salaries this year make-up $3,283,695 of the budget, an increase of $690,829 from the previous year. A Bridgehampton homeowner whose property is assessed at $1 million dollars will now pay $1,513 a year in school taxes as opposed to $1,392. A property valued at $3 million will now pay $4,540 instead of $4,177.

A newsletter prepared by the school’s public relations firm (a part of the school’s annual budget) went out to all Bridgehampton residents last week giving voters details of the proposed budget. That information will also be available on the school’s website starting this week.

Usually the budget process begins in November with Dr. Youngblood, the business administrator, and the board’s budget advisory committee collecting information from the school’s principal and teachers about what expenses they anticipate in the coming year.

However this year due to changes in the business office, according to Dr. Youngblood, Chesterton, school board vice-president Elizabeth Kotz, and board member Joe Berhalter, primarily put the budget together. 

“There wasn’t time for a lot of discussion, but we did work very hard on it,” said Kotz.

Berhalter said this year was very different from the previous year when the board and the budget advisory committee had time to go over the budget line by line. This time they had to let the administration do the bulk of the work and met only two or three times to go over details. Despite the committee being less involved this year, Berhalter acknowledge the budget seems to be pretty tight. 

“It is a fairly good number. I may not philosophically agree with every item in the budget but that’s how it is on a committee,” he said.

Three board members — board president Jim Walker (who is up for re-election), Kotz, and Berhalter — are involved in the budget advisory committee, which also includes Kathryn Degroot, a community member and parent with a background in finance. The committee was set up two years ago because of interest on the part of some board members to have more oversight of the budget.

The first year only board members sat on the committee, but Degroot was invited to participate this year because of her business expertise.

“The budget committee is trying to get the community involved,” said Kotz. “We invite people onto the committee and we are looking at the possibility of opening it up to people who are interested in being on it, but we’d like to keep it small.  It makes it easier to coordinate everyone for meetings.” 

“The budget committee had a significant impact in the past two years,” added Berhalter. “There’s been about a 180 degree change to the whole process.”

The most significant change, according to both Berhalter and Degroot is the switch from the school’s tradition of budget-to-budget projections to actual budget forecasting. What the school used to do, both Berhalter and Degroot explained is work with the previous year’s budget and add on any increased need, as opposed to looking at per item expenses and changes to those expenses within the budget annually. 

Budget-to-budget projections in the end caused the Bridgehampton School to have a $5 million dollar budget surplus several years ago — $4 million of which was returned to the district’s taxpayers after the State of New York mandated that all schools could only maintain a four percent surplus fund balance at the end of each year. Basically what the budget-to-budget projections were doing was annually increasing the surplus. 

Degroot said, “This current school board has fundamentally changed the entire school budget” through adopting an actual to budget forecasting process. She does acknowledge that “the tax levy has gone up though because we no longer have this large surplus to add to the budget.” Degroot adds that the school’s budget has only increased by about two percent in the last three years, significantly less than the rate of inflation.

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