Springs hears budget concerns

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The Springs School Board has to make some decisions to finalize its proposed $21-million-plus 2008-2009 budget, choosing between doing “what is best for the kids or what is best for our pocketbooks,” according to School Board member Tom Talmage.

Mr. Talmage made his comment Monday night, as the board conducted a hearing at the school on the district’s yet-to-be-finalized budget plans. About 75 residents and Springs School faculty members attended.

The board will follow up the hearing with a special open meeting at the school 6 p.m. on Friday, April 25 to discuss the budget further and, possibly, vote to adopt a final proposed budget. In the meantime, the board has asked school administrators to review the budget again and try to make cuts before it is presented to the board for adoption. It will go to the voters for approval May 20.

One big choice would be expanding from three pre-kindergarten, kindergarten and first-grade classes to four of each, which would reduce class sizes for young students and increase the number of students with access to schooling at the earliest possible age. Both moves have been shown to improve performance in students.

But the proposed classes carry $450,000 in additional costs. For the owner of a house in the Springs School District assessed at $600,000, the additional classes would mean $155 more in taxes next year and about $100 more for someone with a house assessed at $400,000.

With gas prices climbing and talk of a faltering national economy on many lips, some residents said that now is not the time for the board to be taking on optional improvements to programming.

“I don’t know if you’re aware but we’re going into a recession. But all we hear from you people is ‘We want, we want,’” resident Henry Schwartzman said. “I think you need to put a dose of reality into this. You go to the gas pump and see the expression on people’s faces. Inside of a year you’re going to see a lot of people out of work who can’t put food on their kids’ tables.”

Contractual obligations and a 28-percent tuition increase for the approximately 300 Springs students going to East Hampton High School next year already will require a budget increase of about $1.3 million, or 5.7 percent, regardless of the addition of the lower grade classes. There was no sign this week that Springs was succeeding in its effort to negotiate a new volume discount from East Hampton.

As the budget options now stand, the minimum increase will mean a $227 hike in the tax bill for the owner of a house assessed at $600,000 and about $150 for a $400,000 house. If the budget is not kept as low as possible, it faces being voted down by Springs voters next month, some speakers warned. Friday, April 25 is the state deadline for submitting their proposal to the state.

School administrators pointed to increasing enrollment at the school, mostly in the lowest grades, and Principal Eric Casale said studies have shown that lowering class sizes in the kindergarten and first grade can mean a full grade level improvement in the academic performance of students. Getting kids into classes at a younger age and improving their early education could reduce the number of kids that end up in special education programs later, which carry much higher costs in the upper grades. The school will pay more than $50,000 in tuition to the high school for each special education student next year compared with just over $21,000 for regular education students.

“We either pay for it now or we’ll pay for it down the road,” Mr. Quinn said. “And it could be a lot more down the road.”

Kindergarten and first-grade classes at the Springs School currently stand at about 24 students per class. Adding one class per grade would bring the ratio down to 17 to 19 kids per class. In the Montauk and East Hampton districts, classes average 16 to 17 kids per class, Mr. Casale said.

“You’re talking about class sizes that are unheard of in [other districts],” said Phyllis Mallah, a retired elementary school teacher who said class sizes in her former school were no more than 18 kids in kindergarten and that all kids started school with pre-K. “You cannot imagine the difference between a child who goes to pre-K and a child that comes in at kindergarten … This is where it starts.”

To accommodate the additional pre-K, kindergarten and first-grade classes the school has proposed renting a classroom at the Most Holy Trinity school in East Hampton for approximately $20,000. The move would allow the pre-K to be expanded, from 40 students to at least 60.

“Every day a student is in a classroom is very important to him or her and to us,” school Superintendent Tom Quinn said. “The class size problem is not going away—we’re looking at big increases in numbers [of students]. We are faced with a serious problem and our board understands how difficult it is to pay taxes in the town, especially in Springs. But if we’re standing still, we’re moving backward.”

But for many speakers at the meeting, including some parents of Springs School students, economic consideration still seemed to be at the top of their priority list. Springs residents already pay the highest school taxes in East Hampton Town because the largely residential district does not benefit from property taxes paid by commercial businesses or the valuable oceanfront properties found in other districts.

“These programs sound nice but it’s difficult for people to absorb,” resident Bob Morsch said. “Over the last three years, the costs to educate a child have risen dramatically. How do you control those costs? Maybe instead of more programs there has to be less programs. Maybe its more focus on reading, writing and arithmetic instead of more esoteric concerns.”

Some residents brought up the specter of the budget failing at the polls, forcing the district to operate on a state-controlled austerity budget.

“There are a lot of people in this community living on fixed incomes,” said a woman, who did not give her name. “Some are choosing between food and medication. Class size is really important but you have to look at what’s going on in the economy. We have to pass a bare bones, bottom line budget because I think that’s the only thing that is going to pass.”

According to Springs School business administrator Ken Hamilton, an austerity budget would mean the district would have to operate basically on the current year’s budget but still cover the contractual increases and tuition hikes for its high school students. Mr. Hamilton said that some $1.8 million would have to be cut from programming at the elementary school grades, which could also mean laying off teachers according to Mr. Quinn.

“The impact of the loss would be unbelievable to the district,” Mr. Hamilton said on Monday night. “We sat down and tried to predict how we’d do that and we came up with some very scary scenarios.”

Holding a public hearing before the budget proposal is adopted is highly unusual for school districts but was a step board members said they thought was necessary, considering the financial woes of the community and the tumult that has surrounded the school’s tuition negotiations in recent months. The move won the board some small praises.

“In the past, the board would have said this is what we’ve decided, vote on it,” parent Kelly McKee said. “I have tremendous confidence in this board and I don’t have a doubt that whatever you decide will be the best thing for this community.”

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