East Hampton Budget Is Under Tax Cap

The budget vote takes place on May 15. Judy D’Mello

John J. Ryan, a member of the East Hampton School District Board of Education, told the public and fellow board members at its meeting Tuesday, that he was pleased they had arrived at the proposed budget for 2018-19 without going into “a shouting match.”

“It was a team effort,” echoed Richard Burns, the district superintendent, as he presented an almost $69 million proposed budget, which reflects an approximate increase of $956,000 or 2.2 percent over this year. The increase stays below the allowable tax cap.

Since 2011, when state officials imposed a 2-percent limit on property tax increases for school budgets, districts have had little leeway in annual expenses. Albany’s plan was to provide relief to highly taxed suburban homeowners, and the effort has been reflected in extremely tight budgets, forcing many districts to find ways to reallocate money and dip into reserves rather than exceed the cap. East Hampton has stayed under the cap each year except for one,without major disruption to operations, and, according to board members, it has continued to expand programs. 

New personnel in the three East Hampton schools  as well as staff salaries and benefits account for 75 to 80 percent of the district’s proposed budget, or almost $50 million of the total, the superintendent said.

Shouting matches, like inflated bud­gets, seem to be of another era.

Sitting in his office on Long Lane last week, Mr. Burns described the tight budget numbers. “We don’t even have any pens and pencils accounted for in here,” he said. Also present was Isabel Madison, the assistant superintendent for business, who will retire in June after 14 years as the district’s chief fiscal officer.

The departure of the district’s prekindergarten program from the Eleanor Whitmore Early Childhood Center and its return to an in-house program at the John M. Marshall Elementary School was a major money saver, the superintendent said.

The district will save approximately $600,000 with that move. Some of that money will be spent on retaining elementary staff, whose jobs had been threatened as a result of the numbers dwindling from 643 to 513 over the last few years, said Beth Doyle, the elementary school principal. New staffing positions have been added to handle the influx at John Marshall.

“So far, we have 56 kids registered for pre-K in the fall,” said Mr. Burns. Registration is on a rolling basis and he anticipated the program would end up with about 65 to 70 children.

Ms. Madison made her final budget presentation a school board meeting on Tuesday. She said the board had set five clear, long-term goals: Improve academic achievement, maintain community communication, facility management, and fiscal responsibility, and continue policy development.

The first of these goals, she said, was to see East Hampton place in the top 25 percent in academic achievement in Nassau and Suffolk Counties. This has not yet been reached, she said, but she pointed to an upward trend. On the other four points, she said the school has been successful. 

On May 15, annual voting day, taxpayers will find a second referendum on the ballot as the district seeks voter approval for an $8.9 million bond to cover the purchase of a three-acre property on Springs-Fireplace Road, and the subsequent construction of a school bus depot and vocational education center there. 

The district now spends $200,000 annually to rent an “outdated space that is in constant need of repair,” Mr. Burns said, referring to property on Route 114 that serves as the current school bus depot. In addition, insurance in connection with the depot costs the district $14,500 per year. Those numbers are projected to increase to approximately $351,000 and $17,000 in 20 years, for a total payout of just under $5.7 million. 

By comparison, the $8.9 million proposed bond, to be paid back over 20 years, would give the school ownership of the Springs-Fireplace property. Homeowners with an average assessed property value of $6,000, would see an estimated tax increase of $25.47 annually, if the bond is approved, the superintendent said. Over 20 years, that number would decrease to approximately $15 a year.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Mr. Burns also made a case for the vocational educational center the school intends to build on the bus depot site, which would offer students opportunities to be trained and licensed in such fields as auto repair, welding, and automotive computer programming. Students enrolled in such programs now must travel to a Board of Cooperative Educational Services center in Riverhead, which costs the district $14,000 a year per pupil.

The new facility would allow students to gain valuable instructional time, said Mr. Burns, adding that vocational educational students are now often unable to be on sports teams because they cannot attend practice sessions. 

“Students depart from school either at 6:30 or 7 a.m. for Riverhead,” said Adam Fine, the high school principal. “And return around 11:30.”

If voter approval is gained, the projected date for completion of the bus depot is September 2020.

Also at the meeting, J.P. Foster, the school board president, cautioned that if the bond is not approved, his “recommendation will be to go back to the Cedar Street property.” He was referring to land owned by the district that had initially been earmarked as the bus depot site, but that drew intense ire from neighbors. If Cedar Street is back on the table, said Mr. Foster, the vocational education part of the equation would be eliminated. 

With the 2018-19 proposed budget at just under $69 million, taxes for homeowners have been estimated: A property with an assessed value of $6,000 (or roughly $1 million in market value), would be approximately $52 yearly, or $4.30 monthly. For a property with an assessed value of $8,200, the estimated increase in taxes would be $71 annually or $5.83 monthly.

If the vote is defeated, and the school is forced to cut this year’s increase of $956,781, Ms. Madison pointed out that certain transportation benefits, athletics, and extracurricular activities, as well as teacher and training conferences, would be the first to go.