Every year, the Board of Education and administration struggle with decisions about how to fund the school district without raising taxes and/or cutting educational programs. That job has been made even more difficult this year given great uncertainty about what aid the district might receive from state and federal sources to offset spending.
What is most aggravating for those who spend long hours developing and scaling back requests for money is the criticism that comes their way from people, most of whom have not attended either in-person or virtual workshops when their input might have been useful in crafting the final document to be submitted to voters in May.
It’s easy to look at a total budget, divide it by the number of students being educated and conclude that it costs the district a monumental amount of money per student.
But that’s a false calculation.
Whether there are 20 students in the building or several hundred, there are fixed costs that have to be met. The building must be heated in the winter, cooled in the summer and various maintenance requirements must take place throughout the year. Those range from capital projects such as the new septic system to be installed this summer to routine but necessary repairs. In the past year, it has also included the necessity of providing the best air filters available in every room and adding sinks for hand-washing to keep students and staff safe.
The result of that spending is that Shelter Island is one of only two Suffolk County school districts to be able to offer in-person classes practically every day.
Another reality is unfunded mandates from state and federal governments that account on average for about 85% of spending. That means your local Board of Education and administrators have control over only about 15% of spending.
Yes, the state comptroller had problems with the district’s reporting in the past, particularly with money that was in the district’s fund balance exceeding the allowable 4% of each year’s budget. The district’s typical fund balance has been in the area of 10%. But Shelter Island is not the only small district in the state that has generally exceeded the fund balance allowed and even some larger districts have larger fund balances, some of which are as high as 40%.
Nonetheless, the Board and administration worked on transferring unassigned balances to various dedicated funds, not to hide money as some have accused, but to earmark it for specific projects.
It’s why the new septic system can be paid for this summer without spiking the budget to cover the cost. All districts create these special funds for capital projects, including perceived building needs, various infrastructure requirements, school buses and other uses.
Shelter Island has done the same.
There will be follow-up efforts to determine if the state is satisfied with the steps taken to meet the criticisms, but there has been no lack of transparency about the district’s finances.
We heartily endorse the district’s $12.38 million spending plan with $11.016 million coming from taxpayers and encourage voters on May 18 to vote yes.