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Story - Education

Mar 17, 2010 9:26 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

Sag Harbor school proposes painful cuts

Mar 17, 2010 9:26 AM

Faced with a nearly 13-percent tax increase that many residents and staff warned might spell certain death at the polls for the Sag Harbor School District’s 2010-11 budget, the district administration proposed slashing more spending to get the tax increase below 10 percent at Monday’s board meeting.

But while the administrators and School Board members got some pats on the back for their cost-saving efforts, many of their proposed cuts were met with objections from district parents, faculty and taxpayers. Parents in particular pleaded with the board to abandon proposals that would eliminate a fifth grade and sixth grade class—meaning larger class sizes in both grades—start the school day for high school students about 11 minutes earlier, and drop plans to start a pre-kindergarten program in the district.

“If you go from 15 to 21 children in a class, you are talking about an entirely different education,” Marion Tanner, the mother of Sag Harbor fourth-grader, said of the estimated growth in class sizes for the fifth grade.

Cutting the fifth and sixth grades from four classes each to three would allow the district to eliminate two teaching positions, saving an estimated $140,000. Only one teacher would be laid off, because the sixth grade teacher would be reassigned to teach another subject.

Dropping the pre-K program, the first the district has ever operated, would save only $30,000, and board members quickly resolved that the program would be added back to the budget—to applause from the audience of more than 200 people. The program will provide two half-day pre-K programs at a cost of about $2,800 per year to parents—a half to a third of what private programs in the area cost.

The district must adopt its budget by Monday, March 22, and board members agreed to hold another public budget work session before that meeting, at 6 p.m.

All told, the cuts proposed by Superintendant Dr. John Gratto on Monday night reduced the proposed budget by nearly $1.9 million, to $30.5 million, and cut the estimated necessary tax rate increase to about 9.8 percent.

Last week the board unveiled a $32.6 million budget that would have required a nearly 17-percent tax hike, driven largely by vastly overestimated revenues and underestimated expenditures in the current school year budget. The district’s new business administrator, Janet Verneulle, who took over from Len Bernard in January, immediately offered a host of relatively minor cuts that dropped the tax hike to 13 percent. After another week of working with administrators, Ms. Verneulle and Dr. Gratto proposed the additional, more painful cuts.

Shifting the start of the school day to start and end classes at the high school 11 minutes earlier, to 7:25 a.m., would save $150,000 by allowing the district to eliminate an overlapping bus route. Board members thought the change was an easy one and noted that many high schools on Long Island begin as early as 7:18 a.m.

But some parents and teachers and at least one Pierson High School student balked at the idea, noting that studies have shown high school kids’ ability to learn already suffers from early start times. Several parents proposed switching the start times of the high school and elementary school so that the younger kids, who don’t stay up as late, would arrive earlier.

“All of the evidence demonstrates that middle and high school students do better when their school day starts later,” said Peter Solow, a teacher at Pierson. He noted that the timing of after-school sports is often suggested as the blockade to starting high schools later, but he suggested that it might more accurately just be a cultural contradiction: “Everybody wants everything to get better but nobody wants to change anything.”

Mr. Solow also made an impassioned plea to abandon a proposal to cap the schools’ security guards’ pay at $25 an hour. The two guards, one of whom is a former NYPD officer, earn $27 and $32 an hour now.

The one thing none of the district teachers and parents did at Monday’s meeting was demand deeper cuts to lower the tax rate further. But some said even a 10-percent tax increase will pose the most serious threat to the budget’s passage in many years.

The district’s other marquee issue also was aired at the podium: For the first time at one of the district board meetings, the sentiments of concerned residents were aligned staunchly against the teacher’s union, which has been deadlocked in a nearly three-year battle with the School Board. One district mother lambasted the union’s rejection of contracts that would mean average annual raises of more than 5 percent and require contributions of just 15 percent to health benefit plans.

Dr. Gratto, who took his own lumps from speakers for the $25,000 salary increase he was given by the School Board last year, noted that the proposed budget sets salary spending levels according to the district’s most recent offers.

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Simple answer. If the teachers take 1% plus their automatic yearly increases for last year, this year and next year (which is over 11% for the period and 4% more than the cops in East Hampton received) you save like $750,000 and a lot of the cuts go away. If Sag harbor thinks it has problems, then look at the East Hampton Star today. Montauk is facing big increases and Springs is cutting all over the place. Don't forget Southampton. The last we heard from Mariner land they still had a $2 million ...more
By hohum123 (91), springs on Mar 18, 10 8:21 PM
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By John Battle (2), sag harbor on Mar 23, 10 9:57 PM
10% Iis still too much. Do you think we are all millionaires?
By nellie (451), sag harbor on Mar 24, 10 10:21 PM
I copied a related NEWSDAY article dated March 20, 2010 by John Hildebrand who reported that the Roslyn School District Teachers Union agreed to a temporary pay freeze, despite the fact that after 20 months they still have not resolved their contract dispute with the Roselyn Board of Education. He wrote "The freeze is the Island’s first for a teachers’ union in more than four years, according to labor leaders and past news coverage. Brentwood and Lindenhurst now are pressing their teachers for future ...more
By John Battle (2), sag harbor on Mar 24, 10 10:25 PM
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