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Story - Education

Apr 16, 2010 1:53 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Sag Harbor school unions will talk pay freezes

Apr 16, 2010 1:53 PM

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.”

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This is truly sick. If the budget is 75% personnel, that's where you cut!

Go in this order: Hiring freeze, pay freeze, benefits freeze. Then, if necessary, follow with early retirements, layoffs of support staff, layoff of other teachers.

The board is supreme in making proposals because they are the elected officials. Cut what you want as much as you want, put it up for a vote. If it fails, cut more, and watch it pass the next go around.
By BobbyH (44), Southampton/NYC on Apr 17, 10 12:22 AM
This entire matter has now become a real drawn out drama because of how badly the administration and Board of education have handled it. Its not sloppy accounting -- everything is accounted forand always has been going back to Ms. Madison. If big surplus was available this year then it would mean it was not used last year and tax rates would have gone up my more last year and the year before. The use of the surplus did help keep board members in office by lower tax rates. The problem is the ...more
By khnoway (9), sag harbor on Apr 17, 10 4:41 PM
sorry for the typos...passed and teachers
By khnoway (9), sag harbor on Apr 17, 10 4:43 PM
The School Board was very sneaky in hiring Dr. Gratto knowing his reputation as a hatchet man. I think they bit off more than they could chew as the man is now out of control and making complete fools of the Board! None of this should have gotten to this point where there are so many hard feelings in the community. Bringing in a man (who has no experience as an educator) that does not understand, or care to understand, our unique, special community was a mistake. He seems to thrive on all of ...more
By Mrs.Sea (268), Sag Harbor on Apr 19, 10 3:31 PM
The Board of Education made a decision to force out a lifelong educator as superintendent and go in a different direction. Breaking the union may have been part of the hidden strategy. Reducing staff may have also been part of the hidden agenda. The board is elected, and elected officials live and die by their decisions on policy and direction. There is little doubt that their agenda was not that of the former superintendent. The question for the community now is whether or not this Boards ...more
By khnoway (9), sag harbor on Apr 19, 10 7:59 PM
1 member liked this comment
Well said, khnoway. In other words, and in my opinion, time to clean house!
By Mrs.Sea (268), Sag Harbor on Apr 20, 10 9:10 AM
unions are ruining this country enough already
By 27dan (2854), south hampton on Apr 19, 10 8:45 PM
Tell that to the mine workers who lost their lives in West Virginia recently. All major mine accidents in the US have been at non-union mines. Why make such a broad statement of condemnation of all unions?

As for the teachers, as Lee Iacoca once said, "In a completely rational society, the best of us would be teachers and the rest of us would have to settle for something else." Cut monies elsewhere and value education and educators.
By dagdavid (646), southampton on Apr 20, 10 10:03 AM
Unions are destroying this country! everyone is looking for the government or a big company to provide assurances. Look people we have the right to pursue happiness in this county not the right to have it! Happiness comes with hard work. If you don't like your job then you have the right to change it. Unions make business operations more complicated and expensive, unionization impedes productivity and competitiveness, harming students, companies and workers alike.
Teachers unions are standing ...more
By 27dan (2854), south hampton on Apr 21, 10 2:45 PM
1 member liked this comment
dag, no one said we should not have OSHA. Just that we do not need Andy Stern ruining the country. You cant fool the people anymore we are wide awake! And this fall we are taking back this county!
By joe hampton (3461), south hampton on Apr 21, 10 2:53 PM
I don't know about the rest of you but NY State took away our STAR checks, I had to tighten my household budget, I didn't get a raise but am very happy to at least be working. It's the economy and I am not blaming all this on the current school administration or the school board. The teachers should be happy they are working and when things get better the will probably get their raise. The teachers need to stop thinking of themselves but think of the students.
By favaunt (24), Sag Harbor on Apr 23, 10 8:10 PM
1 member liked this comment