Spending Cut, Taxes Up

Line for 2011-12 legal bills will be half as much

    On Tuesday, the East Hampton School Board did what it had decided to do at the last three meetings — including a four-plus-hour marathon budget talk on Friday night — it got the overall tax-rate increase to below 6 percent, 5.89 percent to be exact.
    The proposed budget for 2011-12 is $64.4 million with a budget-to-budget decrease of .56 percent from this year. However the tax levy will increase by an estimated 3.64 percent, an addition of $2.56 per $100 of assessed value. This year’s budget is just under $64.8 million.
    “This is the estimate,” said Isabel Madison, the district’s business administrator. “We’re not sure yet.”
    The difference between the budget proposed several weeks ago and the one that was adopted on Tuesday is a decrease in spending of approximately $1.4 million, in cuts that the board said came by asking the heads of each department to go back to their desks and come up with their own suggested reductions.
    Most of the decreases come from paring down expenses for things such as equipment and supplies, although a Ross School collaboration, which cost the school district $139,120 a year, is also to be stopped.
    “When we started the program,” said Raymond Gualtieri, the district superintendent, “we had 20 to 30 students participating, and we didn’t have the facilities to offer what the Ross School was offering.” Those offerings included courses in advanced photography, landscaping, and culinary arts. This year, there are only three students involved, and with the high school’s renovation, especially in the art wing, the board felt that the collaboration with Ross had run its course.
    Other big changes included cutting the legal bills in half, to $150,000, and a decrease of $360,000 in the Board of Cooperative Education Services contract, due to a portion of students moving out of the district or graduating.
    Members of the audience wanted to see the line items that the board was studying at the meeting. Isabel Madison replied that they would be available for residents on May 2, the day before the district’s budget hearing.
    “Why can’t we see them now?” asked Patricia Hope, a former teacher and school board candidate. “Now is when we want them.”
    “If the board approves it tonight,” said Dr. Gualtieri, “then we can put it up on the Web site tomorrow.”
    The board approved the budget; the public will have its say on May 17.
    Also causing concern at the meeting were a series of change orders for work by a heating contractor at the high schoolTK?, which added up to about $35,000.
    “There have been literally hundreds of thousands of dollars in change orders,” said Alison Anderson, a board member. “How do we know that these are fair prices and we’re not paying for things two or three times?”
    “These are recommendations by the architects and builders that we work with,” replied Ms. Madison.
    “So it’s the honor system?” asked Ms. Anderson.
    J.B. Dossantos spoke from the audience. “There seems to be no oversight on Park East [the construction company],” he said. “It may seem like it makes sense go with the lowest bidder, and then they hit us with all these change orders, so maybe the next lowest bidder would have been less expensive.”
    “If there’s no oversight, the cost will keep going up,” Mr. Dossantos said.
    Ms. Anderson echoed his concerns. “Who’s overlooking Park East?” she asked. “We just spent $80 million and I’m not sure who’s in charge.”
    Along with the extra charges, however, the superintendent also reported that the district will receive almost $10,000 back from a subcontractor following water damage in the high school guidance offices earlier this school year.
    The middle school asbestos issue was also addressed again by J.C. Broderick, a consulting firm from UpIsland. The board decided that air samples would be taken in both of the basement-level art rooms, the faculty lunch room, and a storage closet all near a basement room where a small amount of asbestos-containing material was found in a debris pile after two custodians removed a wall.
    “When I was there the other day,” said Patricia Stanis, a school parent and co-chairwoman of the district’s citizens advisory committee, “the kids were in the basement, and the workers were changing the ceiling tiles. My daughter watched them being taken down.”
    “Even if they were brought to another area while the work was done, there was still dust in the air.”
    “Nothing should be done while the kids are in there,” agreed James Amaden, the board president.
    Wendy Geehreng, a school parent, spoke up. “There seems to be a total disregard for the kids and the faculty at the middle school,” she said. “Who’s watching out for them? No one is taking responsibility here.”
    “I just want to see that the board is as committed to the middle school as it is to the elementary school and the high school,” said Meredith Cortes. “The middle school is the heartbeat of East Hampton, most of the people have passed through there. I just want to make sure it’s safe and it’s there,” she said to applause from the crowd.
    Ms. Anderson offered an apology to the public, the faculty, and the students and teachers at the middle school. “I am embarrassed,” she said. “I wish I could give you all an answer right now, but I can’t.”
    She did suggest that when the district hold a community open house on April 30 — inviting the public to see the new construction on the high school — it should also hold open houses at the two other schools in the district.
    It was decided that open houses would be held, but a few weeks after the one at the high school.
    In other news, Chris Jones of the MTK: Music To Know festival spoke to the board about allowing festivalgoers to park in the high school parking lot and be shuttled to the Aug. 13 and 14 event, should it be moved from Amagansett to the East Hampton Airport. He said that whatever money was made for parking could be kept by the school, and he estimated that number at about $10,000.
    The board agreed to consult legal counsel and get back to him.