Westhampton Beach School Taxpayers Divided Over Proposed Spending Cuts

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Taxpayers in Westhampton Beach are divided over how school administrators should slash an estimated $1.5 million from the 2013-14 budget after the district’s teachers union rejected an across-the-board salary freeze, a move that will most likely result in layoffs for a dozen teachers and cuts to programming and athletics.

At a Board of Education meeting on Monday night, approximately 35 people asked members to save a number of activities, including the music and middle school athletic programs, that are facing elimination if the district and Westhampton Beach Teachers Association cannot reach an agreement in the next few weeks. In January, administrators approached the union about taking a hard freeze in exchange for job security for all of the district’s 198 teachers, a move that would have saved the district approximately $1.2 million.

“I think all of these cuts are hard,” Schools Superintendent Michael Radday said. “They all impact the kids in different ways. We will continue to work administratively with the board as we try to make final decisions as to what cuts have to be made.”

Susan Kearns, the president of the teachers union, reiterated on Monday night that her organization is still working with the district on a solution. She also said her union’s executive board will not accept a hard freeze next year, but added that other options are still available.

According to Mr. Radday, all proposals by the union to date have included contract extensions that would force the district to exceed the tax cap in future years. The union’s contract, which is set to expire in June 2014, guarantees educators a 2-percent raise next year in addition to their automatic 3.5-percent step raises—for a grand total of 5.5 percent.

Next year, the school district is allowed to increase spending by $982,682 and remain under the tax levy cap, which would be a 3.73-percent increase from the current year’s $26.3 million levy. To reach that number, and avoid piercing the tax cap for the second consecutive year—a move that would require 60 percent of taxpayers sign off on the budget—the district must still decrease spending by $1.5 million. The current year’s budget totals $51.8 million.

On Monday night, parents and students made their case for preserving their favorite programs, particularly the music program, middle school athletics, and the sign language and Latin classes. The board announced its intention to reduce or cut these programs during last week’s budget hearing.

“I am very, very involved in the district chorus,” said Kayla Murphy, a junior at the high school. “Cutting one teacher is going to really have a huge chip in the music department, considering that one teacher does a lot of different programs.

“This is what we do, this is our sport,” she continued. “We ask you to keep that in mind.”

Mr. Radday responded by saying that the board is considering cuts to the after-school music programming, explaining that music classes taught during the school day will continue. He added that if a specific teacher is laid off, other educators will be called in to continue teaching those classes.

Another concern of parents was whether the laying off of two elementary school teachers, for the third and fifth grades, would result in larger classroom sizes. Mr. Radday said that, even with the layoffs, the class sizes will still be manageable.

On Tuesday, Mr. Radday said this year’s average class size was 16 for the district’s five fifth grade classrooms, noting that there are 78 fifth-graders in the district. The district anticipates having 67 fifth-graders next year and, with four sections, the average class will feature 17 students. There will be four sixth grade classes next year and, if enrollment remains at 78 students, the average class will have 19 students next year, according to Mr. Radday.

The district also plans to reduce the number of third grade classes from four to three next year, and each class will feature about 19 students, the superintendent said. The average class size this year was 15 students. The district now has 58 second-graders.

“We believe these class sizes are still reasonable,” Mr. Radday said.

Parent Patricia DiBenedetto, who is also a Westhampton Beach Village Trustee, asked the board to reconsider cutting its American Sign Language and Latin courses. She noted that both classes, which can help foster other language skills, are at full enrollment this year. Ms. DiBenedetto asked board members to consider cutting other programs if it is forced to trim programming.

The district has until Monday, April 22, to finalize all of its cuts and adopt a budget for the 2013-14 school year. Taxpayers will vote on the spending plan in May.

“We continue to look for solutions and we are going to do the best we can to adopt a budget that maintains as much programs and as many positions as possible,” Mr Radday said.

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