Sag Harbor School District teachers told the School Board on Monday that they are willing to sit down with district leaders to discuss cost-cutting options—including a proposed pay freeze for the coming year.
At the start of the board’s meeting, before an auditorium stuffed with hundreds of teachers, parents, students and taxpayers, Teachers Association of Sag Harbor President Eileen Kochanasz accused the School Board and administration of peddling “misinformation and double-talk” in their pitch for a districtwide pay freeze in 2010-11. Even so, Ms. Kochanasz said the heads of the four employees unions are willing to talk about the proposal, but only if the board first agrees that it will give taxpayers an opportunity to vote on a budget with full funding and none of the major programming and staffing cuts that have been discussed.
“We are prepared to have a conversation ... we are prepared to make sacrifices, but we will not do this in a vacuum,” Ms. Kochanasz told the board, with three other union heads standing behind her. “When you come up with a budget that adequately preserves the health ... of our student’s education, we will throw our full support behind that budget.”
In a separate interview, Ms. Kochanasz said there may be options for savings other than the pay freeze, including pay deferments or delays, which will be discussed in the talks.
The pay freeze proposal, according to the administration, would allow the board to cut some $1.2 million from the $31.4 million proposed budget, and reduce the anticipated tax rate increase from 12 percent to 7 percent.
Board members have said they fear that a budget with such a large tax hike will fail at the polls in May. If that happens, the district could revise the spending plan, make the deeper cuts and put it up for another vote. If that version doesn’t garner enough support, the district would be tied to an austerity spending plan and be forced to cut another $1.6 million from the budget. The cuts would likely mean the elimination of most sports and extracurricular programs like theater and music, and two dozen more job cuts.
About 75 percent of the district’s annual operating budget goes to covering salaries and benefits for its staff. Board members have not said whether the salary freeze would be something the board institutes before the budget is put up for a vote or only if it were to fail.
The board has already cut more than $1.8 million from the budget, which will cost at least one teacher her job next year and eliminate a number of extracurricular clubs and programs.
And district accountant Janet Verneuille said the board was forced to add money back to the budget in the last week for special education and health benefits, pushing the tax increase back up to 12 percent.
Meanwhile, the district had gotten a letter from the state Education Department warning it of the tenuous financial condition it is facing if its budget surplus is not rebuilt. The district once boasted a fund balance of more than 16 percent, but after four years of pouring surpluses into the budget to keep taxes low, and what Ms. Verneuille—who took over the business office in January—called “sloppy accounting,” the district has been left without a financial cushion.
The board must adopt its final budget by April 20 and has scheduled a last-minute final meeting on Monday, April 19.
Pierson High School auditorium was filled to capacity on Monday night and the crowd included more than 100 students, most dressed in athletic uniforms or Pierson garb, who bounded onto the stage and sat below the projection screen that Ms. Verneuille was using to explain the budget. Dozens of teachers, parents and students begged the board not to make any further budget cuts and to give the community a chance to support the budget as is.
“My daughter came home last week in a panic saying, ‘What am I going to do when I have to do my college application? I’m not going to have anything to put on it,’” said parent Nina Landi. “I said, ‘Don’t worry, honey, the community will come out for you.’”
One parent noted that a district budget once passed by only eight votes, but another noted that last year, amid an even worse economic climate, district voters supported the budget by a more than 2-to-1 margin.
Former Pierson Principal Bob Schneider implored the board to bite the financial bullet and put their faith in the community.
“Under-budgeting created a difficult financial future—further under-budgeting will make the problem worse,” he said. “Let’s give more attention to the future than chopping the budget and further short-changing the children.”