School Board Prepares for the Worst

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Eastport South Manor school officials are hoping for the best but preparing for the worst in terms of next year’s budget.

During a School Board meeting at the high school last Wednesday, April 2, School Superintendent Mark A. Nocero and Assistant Superintendent for Business Richard Snyder laid out two bleak scenarios for the 2008-2009 spending plan.

Facing a projected budget crunch due to a lower-than-usual increase in state aid, district officials said they might opt to fire 14 teachers next year. But while they said the move could save the district a little more than $1 million, district residents might still face a nearly double-digit tax increase.

Even with the 14 firings, Mr. Nocero said the district, under his budget proposal, would be looking at a 9.33-percent tax rate increase based upon the roughly $28.3 million in state aid the district would receive next year under current state projections.

The $28.3 million equates to a 2.84-percent, or $781,000, increase from the roughly $27.5 million the district received in state aid for the current year. Mr. Nocero’s proposed $77.24 million spending plan, which has yet to be adopted by the School Board, shows a 6.63-percent, or $4.8 million, increase in spending over this year.

Local revenues of $6.4 million would pay nearly 10 percent of the costs to run the district. That’s a nearly 6.5-percent, or $390,000, increase in local spending. District officials usually count on somewhere between a 9- and 12-percent increase in state aid to help keep control of the local tax levy.

The district has traditionally counted on roughly 57 percent of its overall costs to be covered by Albany. But the bleak projections from the state have dropped that aid to 55 percent.

This year, the district received an 11.75-percent increase in state aid over the previous year.

Mr. Nocero said both U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton and U.S. Representative Tim Bishop phoned him this week to sympathize with the district’s plight. While remaining optimistic that the district could receive more state aid as Albany lawmakers finalize next year’s budget, school officials remained braced for the worst.

School Board members still have to whittle down the superintendent’s budget and are expected to adopt a final proposed budget on Tuesday, April 15. District residents will vote on the final spending plan on May 20.

During last week’s board meeting, Mr. Snyder laid out what the budget would look like on a contingency or austerity budget, should the proposed plan fail. He warned that under an austerity budget, the district would have to cut an additional $2.2 million in programs and staffing. Those cuts would bring down the projected tax increase to about 3.6 percent.

The contingency budget would mean cutting $841,542 in sports programs, more than $188,000 in transportation costs, nearly $284,000 in equipment, and almost $370,000 in extracurricular programs.

“We’re preparing for the worst,” Mr. Nocero said. “We’ve sat down with the administrators and principals and gone over where is it going to hurt the most, where is it going to hurt the least.”

In other news, a group of community members turned out at the meeting to plead with Mr. Nocero and board members to reconsider offering tenure to Amy Agnesini, the district’s director of health, physical education and athletics.

During the board’s last meeting, upon the recommendation of the superintendent, the board tabled a measure to grant Ms. Agnesini’s tenure, because the superintendent wanted to review her personnel file. The superintendent and board members did not deny the athletic director’s tenure but simply extended her probationary period.

She could be up for another tenure review in two months. At least a half dozen people, most of whom have worked with Ms. Agnesini, spoke on her behalf.

Kathryn Radice, a certified athletic trainer and health educator, had to pause several times during her remarks because she became overwhelmed with emotion.

“To work for someone who raised the bar even higher than you can imagine,” Ms. Radice said as her voice cracked and tears rolled down her cheeks. “If you can walk into your boss’s office, and she acknowledges every single day how hard you work—and she always does that. If you can have a boss who is a mentor and a friend, and a competent professional administrator, I can’t understand why this room isn’t filled with people in support of her.”

Mr. Nocero, who has the right to review any employee’s case, and ultimately recommends who is awarded tenure, said he could not discuss Ms. Agnesini’s status because it was a personnel matter. He did, however, acknowledge her contributions to the district.

“I share many of the sentiments that were expressed,” Mr. Nocero said. “I have the utmost respect for her and look forward to working very closely with her in the future, and I think she will serve our district well.”

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