ESM board adopts $76 million budget

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The Eastport South Manor Board of Education on Tuesday adopted a proposed $76 million budget for 2008-2009 which calls for a 5-percent hike in spending and a 5.1-percent property tax increase.

The budget was about $1.5 million less than the $77.5 million budget proposed last month by Superintendent of Schools Mark A. Nocero. Four teachers were added to 14 others that would be fired under the proposal, but at the last minute Tuesday night, the board agreed to retain three of those 18 teachers. If approved, however, the revised budget still calls for the elimination of 15 teachers.

The total tax levy for homeowners would be just under $41 million. An average Brookhaven homeowner with a property assessed at $3,500 would see a $336 increase in their tax bill next year, which is before basic STAR and middle-income STAR tax exemptions.

Under the board’s proposed budget, which will be voted on by district residents on May 20, Brookhaven residents’ taxes would increase $9.57 per $100 of assessed valuation to $197.18 per $100. Taxpayers in Southampton would pay $0.75 more per $1,000, to $15.39 per $1,000 and Riverhead homeowners would pay $6.32 more per $1,000, to $130.21 per $1,000.

Board members trimmed approximately $1.5 million from Mr. Nocero’s original spending plan, which called for the firing of 14 teachers. The board’s proposal eliminated four more teaching positions from the budget, but during Tuesday’s public meeting, board members retracted some of those planned firings and added three teachers back to the roster at a cost of $225,000.

The more than 150 people who attended the meeting cheered and applauded the motion. With his voice shaking with emotion, Mr. Nocero said that the other 15 teaching cuts were done with a heavy heart on the part of himself and board members.

“This was a real difficult budget circumstance,” Mr. Nocero said. “But all the thinking that went into it was not done haphazardly and every decision we made, every dollar we looked at, we tried to look at what would be best for the children.”

Mr. Nocero placed the blame for the teacher layoffs squarely on the shoulders of state legislators, whom he said short-sheeted the district out of its fair share of financial aid.

“Over the years, our state aid increase has averaged about 9.5 percent,” Mr. Nocero added. “This year, our state aid [increase] averaged 4.62 percent, which is a difference of about $6.2 million. So, some hard choices had to be made.”

Richard Snyder, assistant superintendent for business, said this year’s state aid increase equates to just under $1.3 million, the lowest state aid increase in both percentage and dollar amount the district has ever seen.

The district earmarked nearly $400,000 from its fund balance to help control taxes while minimizing the amount of cuts required, Mr. Snyder added.

During Tuesday’s meeting, Mike Doyle, vice president of the Eastport South Manor Teacher’s Association, sympathized with the board’s plight, but made an impassioned plea for more teachers to be reinstated. Mr. Doyle said the teachers union had been working with the board on retirement incentives for highly paid tenured teachers, however, of the nearly 40 teachers eligible for the package, only one retired.

“I do believe that the board and administration are making these decisions reluctantly, and only because they feel they have to in order to give the community a budget it can pass,” Mr. Doyle said. “But, I ultimately disagree with this position because to support it means that everything we have all worked so hard for in the past is for nothing.”

Mr. Nocero pledged that no child’s education would be hurt by the firings, but class sizes will have to increase—first-grade classes will go to 22.6 students, second-grade to 22.8, third-grade to 22.7, fourth-grade to 24, fifth-grade to 23.1 and sixth-grade to 26.3 students. The sixth grade classroom size announcement brought an audible gasp from the audience.

Mr. Nocero said that even with 26 students, the district would be well below the state’s legal limit for classroom sizes, and reiterated that children would not suffer academically because of the increases.

Most of the increases that were made in the spending plan were contractual obligations, Mr. Nocero said, such as cost of living salary increases.

Under the proposed budget, the district cut its research, planning and evaluation program from $25,000 to $3,000, a drop of 88 percent. Board members, however, are proposing an increase in audio-visual funding from $2,660 to $69,597, a difference of nearly $67,000. The money would be used primarily to replace the district’s antiquated television sets, which cannot be repaired because the company that made them is no longer in business.

Specifics of the budget proposal will be outlined in a budget hearing at the Eastport South Manor Junior-Senior High School on Wednesday, May 7, at 8 p.m. in the Board of Education room. A public vote on the budget takes place at the high school on Tuesday, May 20, from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.

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