East Moriches superintendent answers questions about his district’s school expansion

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The superintendent of the East Moriches School District defended his district’s school expansion project during Monday night’s Remsenburg/Speonk School Board meeting, several weeks after those opposed to a local expansion proposal stated that the work in East Moriches led to a spike in property taxes and austerity budgets.

The details of the $23.7 million school expansion in East Moriches, which was completed in 2004, have been discussed at public meetings in relation to the $14.9 million expansion project now proposed in Remsenburg/Speonk. Local voters will be casting their ballots this Friday, December 12, between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. in the school gym, on a plan that seeks to double the size of the Mill Road elementary school.

In East Moriches, a new 75,000-square-foot school housing students in kindergarten through the fourth grade was built on the north side of Montauk Highway, across from the district’s original elementary school, near the intersection of Montauk Highway and Adelaide Avenue.

Several Remsenburg residents, including Gerard Frey and Kathy McGinnis, have pointed out during recent public meetings, as well as in letters to The Press, that the East Moriches School District has had to go on austerity budget several times in the years following the school’s opening. Mr. Frey and Ms. McGinnis, as well as other district residents, have also argued that the addition of a second elementary school contributed to double-digit hikes in East Moriches school property taxes.

In spite of the criticisms and concerns, Remsenburg/Speonk School Board members and administrators have lauded the amenities now afforded to East Moriches district students, and have shown pictures of students in the new school during PowerPoint presentations that encourage Remsenburg and Speonk taxpayers to approve the $14.9 million bond this Friday.

East Moriches Superintendent Charles Russo stated during the public comment section of Monday night’s meeting that “the building bond did not cause the financial crisis.” Rather, Dr. Russo, noted that “overspending on the budget prior to the building of the school” caused the school district to go on austerity budget in 2006.

Dr. Russo said a subsequent investigation completed by the New York State Comptroller’s office found that approximately $1.6 million in overspending in the transportation and special education lines of the budget over three years caused the sizeable tax increases in East Moriches.

“Special education and transportation were grossly overspent,” Dr. Russo said. “My point is that the building bond was a small piece of [the financial crisis], but there were much bigger problems.

“There absolutely would have been tax increases even if the building bond wasn’t passed,” Dr. Russo continued.

While the East Moriches project cost $23.7 million and resulted in a 21-percent tax rate increase in 2006, the Remsenburg/Speonk project is estimated to cost $14.9 million and result in a 12-percent hike in the tax rate starting in the 2011-12 school year, just to cover the cost of the bond. The figure does not include the hiring of additional staff and other operating expenses.

The project, if approved on Friday, would increase the size of the elementary school by 30,000 square feet, allowing the building to hold as many as 400 students. About 200 students now attend the school.

The expansion work should be completed for the start of 2011-2012 school year. In terms of taxes, the 20-year bond would raise the district tax rate by about 53 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation.

Therefore, a taxpayer whose home is assessed at $1 million will pay an additional $9.96 a year—or 83 cents a month—in additional school property taxes in the 2009-2010 school year to cover the cost of the bond, according to school business official Brenda Petrolito. That figure will climb to $219.96, or $18.33 per month, in the 2010-11 school year, before jumping to $529.92 a year, or $44.16 per month, for the life of the bond starting in the 2011-12 school year.

According to figures circulated by the school this week, property taxes will increase about 1 percent next year and 5 percent in the 2010-11 school year before jumping up 12 percent starting with the 2011-12 school year.

For a taxpayer whose home is assessed at $1 million, the district average, operating budget increases resulting from the expansion would total another $200 a year in school taxes, or 20 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation. This cost would take effect once the school open its doors to the public in the 2011-12 school year.

When reached at his office on Tuesday, Dr. Russo said he could not say how much school property taxes would have increased in East Moriches due to the $23.7 million project. Dr. Russo, who wasn’t the superintendent in 2004, again noted that fiscal mismanagement contributed to the spike in taxes and the subsequent austerity budgets.

Though they listed the expansion project as a topic of discussion on Monday night’s agenda, Remsenburg/Speonk School Board members did not offer any comments about the project or the upcoming vote. “I guess we’re all commented out,” said School Board President Jeremiah Collins.

At the end of the meeting, Ralph Ciuffetelli of Remsenburg asked board members if they had taken into account the possibility of more students attending the school. He noted that the district includes the area north of Old Country Road in Speonk, and that the district’s borders extend north of Sunrise Highway to County Road 51.

Mr. Collins explained that the long-term planning analysis completed by the School Board last year did include the properties north of Old Country Road.

Mr. Ciuffetelli also noted that some people consider Remsenburg and Speonk to be two separate entities, a notion dismissed by the board.

“No, no, no, no,” said School Board Member Lisa Fox. “We’re one school district, one community.”

Additionally, Mr. Ciuffetelli asked board members how they know whether enrolled students are actually living within the district’s boundaries. Mr. Collins explained that administrators require a copy of a valid lease, as well as other documentation, before a student is admitted to the school.

“Build it and they will come,” Mr. Ciuffetelli added. “The school could get swamped in the future and the character of the school could change.

“I’m not saying this in a biased sense,” he continued. “I’m saying it in an economic sense.”

An audience member, Christine Simone of Hampton Bays who is also a teacher at Remsenburg/Speonk Elementary School, responded to Mr. Ciuffetelli’s comments by stating: “Long Island is growing, and becoming more diverse every year.”

Also on Monday, the School Board approved spending $1,500 to install temporary lighting in the new school parking lot, which was completed in late summer. School Board Member Thomas Kerr introduced the motion and it was passed unanimously. School officials said the lights will be used to illuminate the lot when parents attend night events, such as concerts.

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