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Big Cuts in Wainscott School Budget

Thu, 07/13/2023 - 10:17
The members of the Wainscott School Board, from left, Kelly Anderson, David Eagan, and Billy Babinski, made some tough decisions on Monday in trimming the school budget after voters rejected it twice.
Christine Sampson

When the Wainscott School District board and administrators broke out their red pens during a hastily called special board meeting on Monday, needing to make budget cuts to bring the new school year’s budget into compliance with New York State’s tax-cap rules, they lopped off $54,000 for salaries for the teachers in charge of “specials,” effectively eliminating art, music, gym, and technology classes.

They crossed out the prekindergarten program for a savings of $99,000, deciding instead to encourage families to sign up with the neighboring Sagaponack School for its new in-house pre-K program. They axed field trip transportation, including trips to the East Hampton Library and to the Y.M.C.A. East Hampton RECenter for swimming lessons, totaling $21,622. They eliminated all nonessential special education services, opting to tap their existing teachers’ skills and expertise to fill in the academic gaps, and took pay increases for most employees off the table.

And they are bringing fourth grade back in-house, meaning the children who had just celebrated their third-grade graduation will be back in the same schoolhouse alongside kids in kindergarten through third grade come September. That will save Wainscott $264,400 in tuition that it would have otherwise needed to pay to schools in East Hampton, Sag Harbor, and Bridgehampton.

“We’re going to have to get creative” in the classrooms, said Deborah Haab, Wainscott’s part-time superintendent. “I have reached out to the teachers to let them know that some of these things were on the table. They are exceptional people and are willing to do just about anything for the children they have in their care. We will find a way to do our very best — but it won’t be the same.”

Wainscott found another $180,000 in savings by taking out the contingency money it had budgeted for unexpected enrollment increases — which is what contributed, during the 2022-23 school year, to the budget crisis the district is currently facing. Twenty new students moved into the district last year and were placed in other schools in fourth grade and up, each requiring tens of thousands of dollars in tuition, for which Wainscott, their home district, is responsible. Of the district’s 120 total students, fewer than 30 attend school at the Wainscott schoolhouse in kindergarten through third grade.

When they were done, a tense silence fell in the room — the only sound the click-click-click of the calculator buttons as Christine Schnell, the district treasurer, tallied up the budget cuts.

The outcome still wasn’t good enough: Although the district had trimmed about $622,000, it didn’t come up with enough new revenues to cover what would still be a deficit. Wainscott will begin the school year with a contingency budget of just under $4.85 million — still between $400,000 and $500,000 more than the revenue the district will be receiving from taxpayers and government sources.

The district found itself in this situation after the community voted the budget down twice, once in May and again in June. The school board had proposed a year-over-year spending increase of about 45 percent — with a tax-levy increase of about 95 percent — and could not win the 60-percent voter support needed to pass the budget.

Now, by state law, the district cannot increase its tax levy beyond $4,394,568, which was the sum last approved by voters in 2022 for the 2022-23 school year. The rest of the district’s revenue comes in bits and pieces, for example, $1,600 from the state lottery and $18,000 from the state toward its Board of Cooperative Educational Services costs.

Wainscott is the only one of Long Island’s 124 school districts to be in the position this year of adopting a contingency budget.

“We’re going to enter this school year with some substantial uncertainty,” said David Eagan, the school board president, on Monday night.

The three-member board then voted Tuesday, during its annual organization meeting, to adopt that $4.8 million contingency budget.

On Monday, Kelly Anderson, a Wainscott board member, floated the idea of bringing in community volunteers to help with art, music, gym, and other areas that had been subject to the cuts.

“Spanish lessons, sports, music, anything would be welcome . . . some sort of way for people to step forward,” she said. “We have a very talented community.”

Leonard Harlan, a Wainscott resident, suggested someone establish a charitable foundation that could raise money for the school. “Those folks who are second-home owners but really feel strongly about education . . . can make a contribution so we can restore those programs.”

Ms. Haab responded by saying she has experience with that process, having done it twice in districts where she previously worked, and would look into it for help here. She also suggested that families get together to form a Parent Teacher Organization — similar to a Parent Teacher Association, but not affiliated with the national PTA, which requires payment of dues. She also pointed out that people can donate money to the district directly.

Mr. Harlan also suggested getting the Wainscott Citizens Advisory Committee involved. Carolyn Logan Gluck, that committee’s chairwoman, who happened to be at the school board meeting, replied, “That’s outside of our purview, but we can certainly amplify the call” by the district for help from the community.

Ms. Haab said she has also reached out to the district’s legal team to see whether the district could hold a special midyear vote on a proposition to add tax dollars.

Mr. Eagan described the situation as “a painful, painful detour” from normalcy. “We understand — I understand the disappointment of our parents. I feel the same way, I hope you understand that. . . . Boy, it’s painful, but we’re going to get back on track.”

The district has appealed to state lawmakers for help through Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr., but school officials in Wainscott — where taxes are the lowest of all districts in East Hampton Town — aren’t expecting much sympathy at the state level. They’re also not getting much sympathy from Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc.

“I think it’s a tragedy that the district hasn’t ponied up to care for and educate the children within the school district, and they’re now in this position where they have to cut resources tremendously and try to blame others,” Mr. Van Scoyoc said during the town board’s regular meeting on Tuesday.

“This is one of the wealthiest school districts anywhere,” he continued, calling the low taxes “not a badge of honor, but a badge of shame” that threatens public education, which is “the cornerstone of our democracy.”

— With Reporting by Christopher Walsh



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