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Voter Guide: School Budgets Balance Needs, Wants, Resources

Wed, 05/10/2023 - 20:44
The Wainscott School is facing a massive increase in spending, but the budget proposal would preserve existing programs at the schoolhouse while accommodating rising enrollment in the upper grades at other schools.
Christine Sampson

From the impact of inflation and the lingering effects of Covid-19, to ever-growing concerns over safety and fluctuating student enrollment, school districts here are grappling with rising costs, as reflected in their proposed spending plans for the next school year.

Statewide, taxpayers will vote Tuesday on school budgets, school board candidates, and school propositions. Locally, five districts — East Hampton, Sag Harbor, Bridgehampton, Sagaponack, and Amagansett — are proposing spending plans that either meet or fall below the tax cap, with an average tax-levy increase of 2.3 percent, which will need only a simple majority to pass. Three others, however — Springs, Montauk, and Wainscott — are seeking to override the state-imposed cap, putting them in the precarious position of needing a supermajority of at least 60-percent voter approval.

“I can’t tell people how to vote, but I can put my head to sleep at night knowing we did the best we could for the children, but also for the taxpayers, because I do keep them in mind,” said Debra Winter, the Springs superintendent, in a phone call yesterday.

Historically, budgets in Springs have passed with about 70-percent approval, Ms. Winter said. She is hopeful that the recent hiring of a new principal and assistant principal has created a more positive buzz in a district that was struggling to retain employees and fund programs. “I think we’re in a good place,” she said. “We came together and got the job done, and I think that was important to have in place before the budget vote. I think it is resonating with people. I think there is a lot of positivity out there right now.”

In Springs, a $35.4 million budget benefited from a 3-percent bump in financial assistance from New York State. Other districts did as well, under Gov. Kathy Hochul’s record-high $34.5 billion school-aid package for 2023-24. Taxpayers in Springs, however, still pay about 71 percent of the district’s operating budget. Compared to districts of similar size, the tax burden on homeowners is larger.

Wainscott, because of its size, is not even eligible for state aid. A school must have at least eight full-time employees to be eligible; Wainscott has only four. The tiny district, which needed to transform its library room into a third classroom this year because of shifting demographics among its in-house student population, is proposing a nearly 50-percent increase in overall spending next year, up to $6.13 million. Rising enrollment was the key. The district is now paying tuition for a record-high 92 students in the fourth through 12th grades, an increase of 20 this year alone.

And Montauk, because it depleted its reserve account during the pandemic, is looking at an 8.1-percent jump in operating costs. “We are still hopeful that Montauk, as it always has, will support the school budget, even in these inflationary times,” its superintendent, Jack Perna, said by email this week.

From Bridgehampton to Montauk, here is a district-by-district breakdown of spending plans, board candidates, and propositions.


Proposed budget: $13,166,519
Spending increase: $507,377 (4.01 percent)
Tax-levy increase: 2.29 percent (meets tax cap)

Amagansett’s proposed budget preserves all current programs and services while accommodating increases in middle and high school tuition, school busing, employee salaries and benefits, utilities, and other areas. The district is applying $1.46 million in surplus money left over from last year to offset the anticipated tax increase. For a house with an assessed value of $6,000 (from $1 million to $1.5 million in fair-market value), a homeowner would see an increase of about $23.40 for the year.

Proposition 2: Approve a $1.8 million bond to overhaul classroom ventilation systems and perform other repair work, with a tax impact of $4 to $5 each year for 15 years.

Proposition 3: Approve the purchase of a new, large-size school bus for $148,610 from a capital reserve account, not expected to directly increase taxes.

Board candidates (two open seats): Kevin Warren (incumbent) and Addie Slater-Davison

Voting hours: 2 to 8 p.m. in the school gym

Related coverage: Amagansett School Budget Meets Tax Cap


Proposed budget: $21,741,879
Spending increase: $784,242 (3.74 percent)
Tax-levy increase: 3.24 percent (meets tax cap)

The budget includes decreases in administrative and capital spending and an overall bump in program expenses for teachers’ salaries, classroom materials, textbooks, supplies, field trips, sports, student clubs, and busing. Bridgehampton’s finances are stable, said its superintendent, Mary T. Kelly, despite facing inflation-driven expenses in the areas of transportation, utilities, interest rates, employee benefits, and the lingering effects of the pandemic. Dr. Kelly said the spending plan provides “the best possible program for our students while being mindful of our responsibility to the taxpayers.” If approved, school taxes on a house with a fair market value of $1 million would rise by approximately $64 for the year.

Board candidates (two open seats): Kathleen McCleland and Markanthony Verzosa (both incumbents)

Voting hours: 2 to 8 p.m. in the school gym

Related coverage: Bridgehampton Spending Plan Set at $21.7 Million


East Hampton
Proposed budget: $79,079,319
Spending increase: $2,576,494 (3.37 percent)
Tax-levy increase: 3.08 percent (meets tax cap)

East Hampton’s proposed 2023-24 budget expands several key initiatives to benefit students, staff, and the community at large. The district is investing in security upgrades, acquiring new school buses, growing mental health support programs and some extracurricular activities, expanding the dual language program at the John M. Marshall Elementary School, bringing driver’s education back in house, and refurbishing the tennis courts and softball field. To offset rising expenses, East Hampton plans to tap into its reserve accounts to the tune of $945,150, a nearly 400-percent increase over the current year’s use of reserves. A separate proposition for repairs and upgrades includes new lockers at East Hampton Middle School, a new outdoor veranda for the high school cafeteria, a re-do of the parking lots at the high school and elementary school, and groundskeeping projects.

Proposition 2: Approve spending $3.925 million from capital reserve account for repairs and upgrades across the three campuses; will not impact tax levy.

Board candidates (two open seats): John Ryan Sr. (incumbent), Emily Agnello, George Aman.

Voting hours: 1 to 8 p.m. in the administration building, 4 Long Lane

Related coverage: East Hampton Unveils $79 Million Budget Plan


Proposed budget: $22,733,958
Spending increase: Approximately $1.7 million (8.1 percent)
Tax-levy increase: 18.56 percent (over the cap)

For the first time since 2012, when the state’s tax-cap legislation took effect, the Montauk School is proposing an over-the-cap budget plan. Spending on Covid-19 expenses, and the supportive programming needed in the pandemic’s aftermath, depleted Montauk’s reserve account, so it had few resources to fall back on when inflation hit. Expenses are rising for busing, special-education services, employee health insurance, enrichment programming, and interest on short-term borrowing. To pass the budget, the district needs a supermajority of at least 60 percent voter approval.

Board candidates (one seat open): Lee White (incumbent)

Voting hours: 2 to 8 p.m. at the school

Related coverage: Montauk Budget Is Over the Cap


Sag Harbor
Proposed budget: $48,063,027
Spending increase: $2,069,700 (4.5 percent)
Tax-levy increase: 1.88 percent (below tax cap)

The Sag Harbor School District’s proposed tax-levy increase of 1.88 percent is far below the maximum amount allowed by the state, 4.16 percent, and one of the lowest across Long Island’s 124 school districts. That’s partly why its Proposition 2 is getting most of the attention this year. The $9.425 million proposal to buy five lots on Marsden Street, adjacent to Pierson Middle and High School, has deeply divided the community. The properties’ owner withdrew his plans to develop the lots while the school vote percolated, and he has stated that he will refile the applications if the vote fails. The school district, which had previously been discussing an athletic field when Southampton Town community preservation money was on the table, is now also considering other physical space and facility needs.

Proposition 2: Authorize a $6 million bond and $3.425 million withdrawal from capital reserves to buy five lots on Marsden Street; tax impact ranges from approximately $18 to $41 for a million-dollar house starting in the 2024-25 school year.

Proposition 3: Establish a new reserve account dedicated to future security and technology upgrades, to be funded through year-end surpluses not to exceed $10 million over 10 years.

Proposition 4: Establish a $75,000 tax levy to support the operations of the Sag Harbor Historical Museum, with an annual tax impact of $6.48.

Board candidates (three open seats): Sandi Kruel, Alex Kriegsman, Daniel Marsili

Voting hours: 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. in the Pierson gym

Related coverage: Sag Harbor's Tax Increase Among Lowest; Marsden Street Mess Comes to a Head

Proposed budget: $1,889,561
Spending increase: $17,813 (under 1 percent)
Tax-levy increase: 2.99 percent (meets tax cap)

Sagaponack’s superintendent, Jay Finello, describes the 2023-24 budget proposal as “very close to this year’s, with a modest increase, without any major changes at all.” Much of the projected spending increase will go toward health benefits for employees and new math-curriculum materials. The district is also setting up an in-house prekindergarten program, using existing staff. The school tax rate is expected to rise by less than one cent, up to $0.27 per $1,000 of assessed value.

Board candidates (one seat open): Thomas Schultz (incumbent)

Voting hours: 7:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Little Red Schoolhouse

Related coverage: Sagaponack Budget Under Cap, Adding Pre-K


Proposed budget: $35,406,133
Spending increase: $2,517,247 (7.65 percent)
Tax-levy increase: 5.15 percent (over the tax cap)

Springs is asking its residents to consider an over-the-cap budget for the first time, meaning that a supermajority of at least 60-percent voter approval will be needed to pass the budget. Rising enrollment, high school tuition, utilities, employee benefits and salaries, cybersecurity expenses, and the need to hire more special education teachers are all driving the jump in spending. If the budget gets voted down a second time (the state allows a revote in June if needed), administrators will be forced to cut the budget by at least $1.84 million, which they say would significantly impact programs and services at the Springs School.

Board candidates (two open seats): Patrick Brabant (incumbent), Katie Sarris

Voting hours: 1 to 9 p.m. in the school library

Related coverage: Springs Adopts Over-the-Cap Budget


Proposed budget: $6,131,331
Spending increase: $2,033,763 (49.27 percent)
Tax-levy increase: 95.5 percent (above tax cap)

The Wainscott School District, which educates children in kindergarten through third grade and is not eligible for state funding, is facing a budget crisis. An unexpected 31-percent increase in the number of students in grades four and up has sapped its resources, leaving both a shortage in this year’s budget and a big ask in next year’s — a nearly 50-percent increase in overall spending. In eight of the last 12 years Wainscott had cut spending, following state auditors’ instructions to spend down the surplus money that would have otherwise provided more of a cushion for the present situation. Costs are also rising in the areas of special education, transportation, and, for the first time, interest on tax-anticipation notes to cover short-term borrowing. “The size of the increases could not have been reasonably anticipated,” the Wainscott School Board wrote in this year’s budget letter.

Proposition 2: Approve $1 million in additional tax revenue to cover tuition-related shortfall in the current year’s budget.

Board candidates (one seat open): David Eagan (incumbent), Melanie Hayward

Voting hours: 1:30 to 8 p.m. in the new schoolhouse

Related coverage: Wainscott School Budget Explodes


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