Springs School Board adopts 6’percent budget increase; will expand classes

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After cutting approximately $187,000 in spending from its proposed operating budget for the 2008-2009 school year, the Springs School Board adopted a $21.2 million spending plan at an 11th-hour meeting on Friday evening. The total represents a 6-percent increase over the current 2007-2008 budget.

If approved by voters on May 20, the proposed budget would carry a tax hike of about 6 percent for Springs School District property owners. The spending hike would mean “average” homeowners, with houses assessed at $600,000, would see a $246 increase in their tax bills. The owners of houses assessed at $400,000 would see their tax bills go up by about $162.

The adopted budget proposal would allow for the expansion of the kindergarten and first grades to reduce class sizes by moving the pre-K program to a rented classroom at the Most Holy Trinity school in East Hampton. It does not include a proposed expansion of the pre-kindergarten program, which would have doubled the number of students the school accepted into the pre-K class.

Cuts included eliminating funding for the hiring of an additional language teacher as well as a social worker, nine teachers’ aides, an account clerk, professional development training for teachers and a variety of supplies and equipment.

In the end, the budget was adopted by a 4-to-1 vote with board member Tom Talmage voting against the proposal, having supported a lower increase in spending that would not have reduced class sizes. Board member Kathee Burke Gonzalez voted in favor despite having advocated for a lower increase earlier.

“If you look at the increase adopted by other schools, you’ll see this is a very modest increase,” board president Chris Kelley said. “It meets the needs we have here in the most moderate way possible.”

“We’ve all been elected to do what is the best for our children in this school,” board member Karen Rodriguez said. “I feel the best option for our kids is to have smaller class sizes.”

Ms. Gonzalez and Mr. Talmage both supported a proposal that would have put off expanding any of the lower grades for a year but would have included the hiring of an account clerk for the district office. The proposal would have meant a 4.5-percent tax increase, an average of $183 per household.

With three other board members voicing support for the higher budget, Ms. Gonzalez sided with them when the proposal was put to a vote.

With the adopted budget required to be filed with the state by April 25, the board pushed its decision to the last possible minute. At a public hearing on April 21, some residents demanded the budget be kept as low as possible in a year when a higher tuition charge to send students to East Hampton High School was already hitting taxpayers along with the price of gas and food.

After that meeting, the board asked school administrators to cut anything not absolutely necessary while still allowing for the expansion of the kindergarten and first grade. Programs such as a retreat for eighth grade students and computer instruction were dropped. Members of the Parent Teacher Association said that they would try to raise money privately to fund some of the programs cut.

Some members of the audience on Friday criticized putting financial concerns ahead of programming. “I am completely appalled at the cuts you are proposing,” Alicia Wiltshire said. “I say go with the proposal from Monday—stand up and say you support the budget and … improve the school so our children have a future.”

The board had initially proposed expanding the pre-K from 20 students to 40 and adding a fourth kindergarten class and fourth first-grade class to reduce class sizes from approximately 24 kids to 17 per classroom. Enrollment in the lower grades is expected to climb by as much as 20 percent next year. Educators argued that getting kids into school earlier and keeping class sizes down is critical to good early education and could save the school money in the long run by keeping kids out of costly special education programs later. The expansion of the pre-K, kindergarten and first grade would have increased spending by 8.5 percent and the projected tax increase by more than 9 percent.

There were considerably fewer opponents of the higher spending proposal in the audience on Friday night than there had been during the April 21 meeting. Responding to comments that elderly residents on living on fixed incomes are already overburdened in Springs, which has the highest school tax rates of any district in East Hampton, resident Robert Matz said that his 77-year old mother “who lives on a fixed income, supports the proposal you put forth before and supports what you put forth now.”

But others warned of the danger of the budget failing on May 20. “Better to postpone programs for a few than to threaten every student by risking the budget not getting passed,” said one man, who did not give his name.

If voters do not approve the district budget on May 20, the board will have a month to call a second vote and could put up a smaller budget increase for approval. If the budget fails a second time, the school would be forced to adopt a state-mandated austerity budget, which Superintendent Tom Quinn said would eliminate all funding for after-school programs and sports, summer school and homework help, and would likely require that the school lay off some staff, including teachers. Mr. Quinn said an austerity budget could mean class sizes as big as 30 kids.

“Everything that defines our school would be taken away,” Principal Eric Casale said. “the things that make Springs School the Springs School—we would be a shell of that.”

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