East Quogue School Board Trims Another $600K From Budget; Spending Plan Won’t Pierce Cap

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The East Quogue Board of Education adopted a $22.41 million budget for 2013-14 on Monday night that trims close to an additional $600,000 in spending, namely by cutting two special education positions and several teacher aides and teaching assistants.

The revised spending plan was drafted after its first budget failed to garner the 60-percent approval that was required for it to pass last month because the budget exceeded the state-mandated 2-percent tax levy cap. The revised budget now comes in under the cap, meaning that just a simple majority on Tuesday, June 18, is required for the budget to pass.

The revised budget now increases overall spending by about one-quarter of 1 percent over this year’s $22.35 million budget. District officials said the spending plan would also increase the tax levy by about 2.45 percent—just under the state cap, after exceptions and exemptions are considered—but said they had not yet calculated the projected tax rate. Under the rejected budget, the tax rate was expected to climb 4.7 percent, from $10.37 to $10.86 per $1,000 of assessed valuation.

The rejected $23 million budget proposed a 2.9-percent overall spending increase and a tax levy increase that would have pierced the cap. It received 59 percent approval, just seven votes shy of the 60 percent it needed.

During Monday’s meeting, which drew emotional reactions from both the board and the roughly 50 parents and school employees in attendance, board members said every program at the elementary school would be maintained, though some would be modified under the revised budget.

“We don’t feel good about making cuts—it’s been a pit in my stomach since we went down that night,” School Board member Joseph Tsaveras said, adding that he, too, has children in the school.

He added that the board spent hours poring over the budget in the past week, trying to find the best way to trim an additional $593,000 to reach the cap by Monday, the deadline the state gave them for adopting the amended spending plan.

“Trying to find that amount of money in our budget forced us to make some very difficult decisions,” School Superintendent Les Black said. “It came down to a choice of saying, ‘Would I rather have this, or would I rather have that? I can’t have everything that I had before.’”

If approved by voters on June 18, the revised spending plan would eliminate a custodial position and a total of three special education teachers—one was originally cut under the rejected budget—and an unspecified number of teacher aides and assistants. Mr. Tsaveras said the cuts that were made in the rejected budget also will be cut from the revised spending plan, including a part-time librarian position. A foreign language teacher will be reduced from full-time to part-time, which sparked concerns that the Spanish language program would be eliminated, but Mr. Tsaveras said the board is examining ways to keep that program intact.

Since the proposed budget now falls under the cap, it will require only 50-percent voter approval at the polls. If the budget were to fail a second time, the board would be required to adopt a budget with a zero-percent increase in the tax levy, resulting in massive cuts and further job eliminations.

“There is no way we can risk putting the same budget up a second time,” Mr. Black said, explaining the board’s reasoning for adopting an amended budget that falls below the cap. “If it were to fail again, the consequences would be absolutely devastating.

“It would be irresponsible of all of us to try to do that,” he continued. “I wish I could say something different.”

Parents thanked board members for their hard work, while some expressed concerns about the jobs that would be cut, particularly those in special education, and how it would affect their children. Board members were reticent to say what specific jobs would be eliminated—and how many—citing a need to notify the employees before that information is announced publicly. Mr. Black said those details will be shared during a public hearing scheduled for 7:45 p.m. on Tuesday, June 11, at the Central Avenue school.

Mr. Black said kindergarten would be preserved as a full-day program, and the music program would remain intact under the revised budget.

“How do you justify cutting any special ed?” asked resident Carrie Dansky, a speech pathologist in the Sachem School District who has an autistic child who now attends the Westhampton Beach High School.

The board assured her that all special education students would receive the services that they require and deserve. Board member Patty Tuzzolo, who has a special education student in the school, said it is the last place she wanted to see touched. “Know that we’re just doing the best we can with a really crumby situation,” she said.

The board also approved a proposition that will be put before voters on June 18. If approved, the district will modify its school transportation requirements so that buses only pick up children living a minimum of one mile from the school, rather than the current minimum of a half mile, saving about $57,000.

“When those kids come back here in the fall, have faith, have trust, that we will give them everything we have, more so than ever,” Principal Robert Long said. “Now it’s the time to dust ourselves off to get out to those polls in a couple of weeks and make sure this situation doesn’t get worse, because those teachers sitting out there in the audience and this Board of Education sitting up here at the front of the room have done everything humanly possible.”

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