School Board takes ax to budget

JULIE LANE PHOTO | Social worker Emily Hill voices ominous warnings about emotional needs of students that wouldn’t be met if the Board of Education doesn’t find funds to support at least a three-day-a-week job.

After struggling a week ago and coming up with only a single $9,000 cut in school spending for next year, the Shelter Island Board of Education found more than $250,000 in possible cuts at Wednesday night’s meeting — but few came without pain.

Perhaps the most painful for many school board members was knocking out $65,000 in proposed spending for a part-time social worker — a position held by Emily Hill, whose two-day a week job has been paid for with federal grant money that isn’t forthcoming for the 2013-14 school year. Superintendent Michael Hynes agreed to speak with a grant writer to explore the possibility that other grant money might be found, not only to retain the position, but to make it full time.

“This one is really, really difficult,” Dr. Hynes said in proposing the cut. At the suggestion of board member Marilynn Pysher, he agreed to speak with grant writer Jeffrey Friedman, who has written successful grant applications for Communities That Care.

Dr. Hynes estimated a full-time social worker could cost the district as much as $100,000, with board member Mark Kanarvogel questioning why the cost would be so high.

“You don’t want someone fresh out of school,” his board colleague Elizabeth Melichar responded. A social worker on the Island has to work without a support system and it’s important to have someone experienced, not someone just learning the job.

Complicating the board’s decision was a presentation by current part-time social worker Emily Hill who offered a glimpse into the work she does and the problems she sees.

One in five youths in the United States has a mental illness, Ms. Hill said. And 75 percent don’t get the care they need to deal with their problems.

Based on her two-day-a-week work this year, she told the board she has seen problems involving harassment and discrimination with “some of them bordering on threats;” feelings of being unwanted by peers and family members; difficulties dealing with divorce; behavioral problems; difficulties coping with grief and loss; autism; drug and alcohol abuse; depression and anxiety, eating disorders; suicidal ideations; domestic abuse; and self-harm.

She acknowledged that there are others in the school, such as nurse Mary Kanarvogel, to whom students confide. But she stressed the importance of having a trained social worker available, both to assist students and to guide teachers who have sought her advice in how to handle certain problems.

Students whose emotional issues aren’t being addressed are ill-equipped to tackle educational challenges, Ms. Hill said.

“A social worker needs to be here a minimum of three days a week,” she said.

After the meeting, she told the Reporter she wasn’t fighting specifically for her job but making the case for why Shelter Island needs to have such a resource no matter who fills the position.

Other cuts likely to be sustained by the board at next Wednesday’s budget meeting are:

• Cutbacks in the summer school program, while still retaining some elements.

• Off-Island sports participation. With the exception of one student who will be a senior next year and plays in a combined team with North Fork students, Dr. Hynes said the costs are too high to sustain other off-Island sports teams.

• Cutbacks that would eliminate the school newsletter that hasn’t been used in two years; and eliminate middle school and science coordinators.

• Elimination of a part-time cafeteria worker and increases in costs of breakfasts and lunches.

• Scrapping of plans to add an extra custodian.

• Cutting back on Eastern Suffolk BOCES services.

• Reductions in unemployment insurance and interest on tax anticipation notes.

• Previously announced cut in costs of field trip chaperones.

Another possibility could include scrapping the permanent full-time substitute.

Among the decisions the board must make is how much of its fund balance to allocate to next year’s budget, given that without replenishment, the fund balance would be gone after four years.

Dr. Hynes said the most he would propose would be $325,000 and that would still require at least $173,000 in cuts to the budget.

Alternatives would be to use either $275,000 or $225,000 from the fund balance, requiring deeper cuts to spending.

More stories will follow on the Reporter’s website about various proposed cuts prior to the next budget meeting on Wednesday, April 24, at 6:30 p.m. in the school library.

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