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Apr 20, 2016 10:39 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

East Quogue School Board Will Attempt To Pierce Cap; Parents Are Working To Drum Up Support

Apr 20, 2016 2:50 PM

Every time Jessica Salters attends a sporting event with her two sons, she finds herself talking to her friends and neighbors about the importance of supporting next month’s school budget in East Quogue.

Her worst nightmare, Ms. Salters explained, is seeing the 2016-17 spending plan fail. If that happens, her oldest son, Andrew, now a second-grader at the elementary school, will most likely lose the opportunity to participate in extracurricular activities next year; he only recently started participating in intramurals that are offered in the gymnasium of the Central Avenue school once classes are done for the day.

“It’s not only about education,” said Ms. Salters, who attended East Quogue Elementary School as a child. “Some students will find their niche in arts or intramurals. If you can’t find something to pull them into school and be interested, there will be problems down the line.”

She is also worried that Andrew won’t have the opportunity to join the third and fourth grade chorus in September because, if next year’s spending plan fails, music programming would likely be one of the first cuts.

Ms. Salters’s younger son, Jack, would also be affected if the budget is rejected. The 5-year-old is preparing to enter full-day kindergarten in the fall—but that offering, as well as a slew of others in the cash-strapped district, most likely would be cut if the district’s $23.8 million budget does not pass on Super Tuesday, May 17. While full-day kindergarten would be replaced with half-day kindergarten if the spending plan is rejected, many other programs, as well as positions, would have to be cut outright if the budget is rejected next month.

Adding extra pressure is the fact that the Board of Education was essentially forced on Tuesday night to adopt a spending plan that pierces the state-mandated cap on the tax levy, or the amount the district is permitted to collect in property taxes each year. The adopted budget comes in nearly $1 million over that cap, meaning that at least 60 percent of those who come out to the polls on May 17 must vote in favor of the spending plan for it to pass.

If that does not happen, the Board of Education can either put up the identical budget a second time or cut spending before that happens. If the second attempt also fails to garner 60 percent approval, the board would have to adopt a $22.6 million contingency budget that totals approximately $450,000 less than the current year’s $23.05 million budget, or almost $1.2 million less than the spending plan proposed by School Superintendent Robert Long.

Part of the concern is that history is not on the district’s side. In 2013, the board put up a $23 million budget that also pierced the cap and, that time, the district came up seven votes short of a 60-percent majority. In that instance, the board opted to trim some funding before putting up the spending plan a second time. It passed on the second try, with 73-percent approval.

Explaining that the district is in dire financial straits—even though East Quogue is expected to receive its first-ever $1.2 million payment in lieu of taxes, or PILOT, from Southampton Town next school year—Mr. Long said the Board of Education had to approve a budget that pierces the cap in order to avoid cutting non-mandated services at the elementary school. Those services include late buses for the district’s middle- and high school-age students who attend Westhampton Beach schools, the elementary school’s instrumental music program, half-day kindergarten and many after-school activities. Several non-mandated staff, including a physical education teacher, a special education teacher, teaching assistants and teacher aides, would also likely have to be let go in order to get next year’s spending plan under the cap.

If the district’s budget fails twice, and it is forced to adopt a $22.6 million contingency budget, all of these non-mandated services would have to be slashed.

Patricia Tuzzolo, president of the Board of Education, stressed that she and her fellow board members agree that piercing the cap is the only option for the district.

“We feel very strongly about protecting the integrity of the programs,” Ms. Tuzzolo said after Tuesday night’s meeting during which the board adopted the cap-piercing budget. “We put forth a budget that we feel is fair.”

After it approved the $23.8 million spending plan, board members received a round of applause from the nearly 40 people in attendance.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Mr. Long explained that a significant portion of the burden on taxpayers will be lifted due to the upcoming PILOT. Without that payment, the district’s tax rate was expected to jump 9.4 percent, from $11.05 per $1,000 of assessed valuation to $12.09. But thanks to the $1.2 million payment, the tax rate is now expected to climb only 3.3 percent, to $11.42, according to Mr. Long. Therefore, a taxpayer whose property is assessed at $500,000 can expect to pay 5,710 in school property taxes next year, or $185 more than this year.

The district’s tax levy, meanwhile, is expected to go up about 5.8 percent to $21.8 million next year, according to district officials. The levy is at $20.6 million this year.

Noting that the budget vote is less than a month away, Ms. Tuzzolo urged those in attendance to educate their neighbors about the importance of them supporting the spending plan.

Toward that goal, some two dozen hamlet parents and teachers formed a budget advisory committee about a month ago, meeting four times since then. Parent Kevin Blanco, who sits on the committee, explained that one of the group’s goals is to explain to others the importance of voting next month—and voting in support of the budget. As part of their effort, committee members launched a Facebook page called “East Quogue Community Connection” that is designed to allow parents and community members to have an open dialogue about the budget.

Mr. Blanco said members are also coordinating with the district’s Parent Teacher Association and intend to send home fliers with students explaining the importance of voting, and to encourage others to contact their neighbors and urging them to vote. “It’s really a little early to be reminding people to vote when the vote isn’t for another five weeks,” he said, noting that the fliers would most likely be issued next month.

As for Mr. Blanco, he said that the most important message that committee members want to deliver is that most of the increases in the budget are uncontrollable, and include rising tuition costs to Westhampton Beach, as well as medical and pension costs.

“The majority, or at least half, of our budget goes directly to Westhampton Beach for tuition, so we just have such a small amount of our budget that we have decision-making ability over,” he said. “We have such a small amount of money to work with to make decisions with.”

Mr. Blanco explained that if the board opted not to pierce the cap, instrumental music and full-day kindergarten would have had to be cut.

“Those are really basic public school services when you look at other districts,” he added. “So, from that standpoint, we need to have our children be ready for when they reach the middle school level. For that reason alone we need to continue to provide these programs … otherwise, when our students get to Westhampton Beach, they will have a disadvantage.”

And it is those projected cuts, namely those that threaten to take away full-day kindergarten and music, that have inspired parents like Ms. Salters to get involved. She sits on the budget advisory committee and, like other group members, is doing her part to stir up support for the budget.

“I feel like parents will definitely support the budget but, unfortunately, to pierce the cap you need 60 percent [of the vote]” Ms. Salters added. “It’s really going to affect the whole community of parents and my hope is that they will go out and support it.

“I’ll probably have a pit in my stomach until May 17,” she added.

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