East Quogue School Board Adopts Budget, Holds Off On Layoffs

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The East Quogue Board of Education adopted a $23 million budget for 2015-16 last week but, in doing so, also backpedaled—at least temporarily—on a series of teacher layoffs previously proposed by Superintendent Les Black.

With an estimated tax levy of $20.5 million—or roughly 0.7 percent more than this year—the adopted budget falls within the state-mandated cap on tax levies. However, by the board’s own estimation, it remains unclear how the single-school district will stick to that spending plan without also cutting three full-time teacher’s assistants, one full-time reading teacher, a full-time regular education teacher and a part-time psychologist.

Mr. Black, who had proposed cutting those positions to avoid piercing the cap at a budget hearing two weeks ago, was not in attendance for last Wednesday night’s meeting that attracted nearly 70 people. He also did not respond to multiple calls seeking comment this past week.

But Principal Robert Long labeled Mr. Black’s proposal as “premature” during last week’s hearing, adding that no cuts have been finalized and the board was still exploring all its options. He also said he did not know why Mr. Black missed the meeting, adding that he only knew that School Board President Kathryn Tureski had excused the superintendent.

Mr. Long said the board would explore additional revenue streams that would allow them to increase the budget without piercing the tax cap, though he declined to offer specifics.

Also, he was not overly optimistic about the district’s financial prospects.

“I don’t want to present false hope that all these positions will be brought back,” Mr. Long told the crowd of parents, students and teachers who had gathered in the elementary school cafetorium, “but we will work to do everything we can.”

Before the budget was approved, several parents stepped up to the podium and urged the Board of Education to attempt to pierce the cap, a move that would require the support of a super-majority, or 60 percent, of district voters in order to pass on Tuesday, May 19. The board’s original draft budget came in at $24 million and would have surpassed the state cap.

East Quogue parent Joseph Sanicola said he would be willing to pay higher taxes if it meant bolstering the education available to his children.

“You have the opportunity to let us speak our minds about whether or not we should pierce the cap,” Mr. Sanicola said. “You should give us that opportunity.”

The board, however, declined to take such a route, pointing to the district’s failed effort to pierce the cap in 2013—which fell just seven votes shy of the required super-majority—as reason enough not to try again. If a tax-piercing budget fails to get 60 percent approval, the next budget must pass or else the district will be held to a flat budget, one that holds the line on spending. Board member Diane Gobler noted that even one failed budget vote damages a district’s credit rating.

“When you try to pierce that cap, it drives a wedge into your community,” Ms. Gobler said. “We have enough confidence in this alternative revenue stream that we don’t feel that risk is called for.”

Angered by the cuts that the district might be facing and wanting to save teaching positions at any cost, some parents called for Mr. Black to resign and allow Mr. Long to act as both principal and superintendent, as is the case in the nearby Quogue School District. Mr. Black only comes in to the school on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

East Quogue parent Brian Babcock wanted answers from Mr. Black as to why the community was notified of the budget issues—in particular, the outstanding tuition fees due to the Westhampton Beach School District—prior to the budget adoption. Mr. Long blamed the budgetary shortfall on an abnormally high tuition reconciliation owed to Westhampton Beach, which educates East Quogue’s middle and high school students, for the 2013-14 school year. East Quogue owed Westhampton Beach an additional $350,000 in outstanding tuition fees, which was paid last month.

Mr. Babcock also wanted to know why a better solution to the budget issues did not come up with in advance.

“I would like Les Black to tell me why he didn’t see this coming,” Mr. Babcock said. “If he can’t answer the question, he should resign.”

East Quogue parent Steve Dorn had a similar sentiment about the superintendent.

“I’ve come up with a slogan: ‘We could do more without Les,’” Mr. Dorn said. “We would have $60,000 back in the budget if he resigned.”

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