Shelter Islanders go to the polls Tuesday, May 21, with the fate of A proposed $10.047 million spending plan for school year 2013-14 in their hands.
The administration, staff and Board of Education struggled this budget season to find cuts to stay within the state-imposed 2 percent tax levy increase without seriously depleting the district’s reserve funds.
The proposed budget is estimated to raise $9.7 million in real estate tax revenue with the balance coming from state aid, $275,000 from the fund balance (or rainy day account) and $30,000 from interest earnings and miscellaneous receipts. If spending stays on course as expected in the next school year, it will top the current year’s spending by 3.17 percent, with most increases coming from contributions to employee retirement systems, health insurance premiums and other contractual agreements. While the actual tax levy would increase by 2.3 percent, in calculating the allowable 2 percent increase, the district is allowed to deduct spending on increases like pension costs.
The prime goal in drafting the proposed budget, according to Superintendent Michael Hynes, was to maintain academic programs and go forward with plans to redesign both curriculum and building use to enhance the existing educational program. He and the Board of Education also wanted to take as little from the fund balance as possible to keep from depleting money that could be needed to both offset future years’ spending and any emergency expenses.
By law, a school district is allowed to maintain a fund balance of 4 percent above its budget. But Shelter Island, like many small districts, tends to override that, arguing that 4 percent of its current budget would amount to less than $400,000. (For example, more than $100,000 could be used up if a single special education student with significant needs was to transfer into the district.)
Prior to the tax cap, most districts stayed within the allowable 4 percent, but that was in the days when most could avoid tapping these undesignated funds and even add a little each year to build up the reserves. Today, small districts like Shelter Island have had to dip into their reserves with no replenishment. And a district caught with no emergency funds when a need arises has to go back to taxpayers and ask for more money.
When the state legislature restored aid Governor Cuomo had cut from his initial budget and Assemblyman Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor) was able to secure an additional $50,000 for Shelter Island, the district was able to stay within the 2 percent tax cap this year. Cuts that were made to come up with the budget request include:
• Elimination of a part-time social worker who had been paid with federal funds that are no longer available. Board members agreed to seek grants to try to reinstate and even expand what has been a two-day-a-week job.
• A rollback of 50 percent for services rendered by a special education consultant.
• Reductions in costs for unemployment insurance and tax anticipation notes.
• Cutbacks in money for chaperones of school trips.
• Elimination of a part-time cafeteria worker.
• Elimination of a plan to add an extra custodian to the two-person staff.
• A reduction in some BOCES services.
• Elimination of some after-school activities.
• An end to participation on off-Island sports teams except for one student who will be a senior and has participated in his sport throughout his high school career.
• Cutbacks in some Board of Education expenses.
• Reduction in costs for unemployment insurance and tax anticipation notes.
At the same time, the district will be stepping up its academic program in an effort to better prepare students for future studies and the job market. There will be a strong emphasis on reading and writing skills; a team-teaching approach at the elementary school level to better tap into teachers’ specific areas of expertise; and the creation of two learning centers — one concentrating on math, science and technology and the other on humanities.
If the voters were to turn thumbs down of the budget request, the Board would have a choice of resubmitting the same plan a second time or tweaking the plan it presents. But a second no vote would force the district to adopt a state-dictated contingency plan in which the district would have little to say about how it could spend its money.
Voting takes place in the school gymnasium on Tuesday, May 21, from noon to 9 p.m.