School board president: ‘The most devastating budget I’ve seen’

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03/15/2013 6:00 PM |

JENNIFER GUSTAVSON PHOTO | Mattituck-Cutchogue Board of Education president Gerard Diffley, left, and Superintendent James McKenna at Thursday night’s budget workshop.

Mattituck-Cutchogue School District Superintendent James McKenna projected Thursday night nearly 12 positions would need to be eliminated in the 2013-14 spending plan, including about seven layoffs, in order to plug an $800,000 gap.

More than 40 parents, teachers and students attended the school board’s second budget workshop and listened as Mr. McKenna and school board president Gerard Diffley explained how rising benefit costs, contractual increases and a decline in revenue have attributed to the district’s “unprecedented budget deficit.”

“I’ve been on the board for almost 15 years and this is probably the most devastating budget I’ve seen in my tenure as far as the deficit goes,” Mr. Diffley said.

While a state law passed in 2010 caps year-to-year increases in the tax levy — the total amount the district collects from taxpayers — at 2 percent, the district is allowed to exceed the state’s mandate because some expenses such as pensions and capital costs are exempt.

Mr. McKenna said Mattituck is allowed to raise the tax levy to 3.65 percent without obtaining 60 percent voter approval. The superintendent said his $38.6 million proposed budget carries a 1.68 percent spending increase over the current budget and calls for not replacing some retired teacher jobs, consolidating a few positions and laying off others. Another cost-saving measure is to reduce busing by one run, resulting in a $59,000 savings. Class sizes at the Cutchogue-East Elementary School are also expected to increase next year, he said.

Mr. McKenna said the majority of programs — such as AP courses, BOCES and NJROTC — are included in the proposed spending plan.

Although his preliminary budget doesn’t slash student programs, he said it does “shrink” some opportunities. For example, library, technology, speech, business, art and music offerings would be reduced.

Some of the reductions are due to dwindling enrollment, he said. The district’s enrollment has decreased from 1,500 in 2010 to 1,350 this year. The superintendent is also projecting another 150 student enrollment drop for 2016.

“This is not the budget the district wants, but this is the budget the district can afford with a tax levy cap,” Mr. McKenna said.

Several parents and students pleaded with the school board to maintain the district’s music program because they believe it plays a major role in development and promotes creativity.

Greg Messinger, a tenth-grade student and musician, said he doesn’t believe a downsized version of the music program is acceptable.

“Lessons are a way to expand upon what you learn in band that you don’t have time to do that 40 minutes of class,” he said. “It’s one of the only things I’m willing to miss lunch for.”

Mr. McKenna stressed the proposed cuts aren’t official and said local state elected officials believe some of the district’s state aid will be restored. The state Legislature is expected to approve its budget by April 1.

Since the 2008-09 school year, he said Mattituck’s state aid has reduced by 22.1 percent. Under Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year, Mattituck would receive about $2.2 million, down nearly 12 percent compared to the current year.

Mr. McKenna said he doesn’t believe hoping for restored state aid, using additional fund balance and some reserves and eliminating programs is enough to close the $800,000 shortfall.

He said the most feasible solution is to make the “hard decisions” of cutting staff and reducing programs because he doesn’t believe the community will support a budget that pierces the cap since the district’s budget has “historically” failed to gain a supermajority approval.  Last year’s $38 million budget carrying a 2.19 percent tax levy rate passed by a 571 to 395 vote. That budget appropriate $1.14 million from its fund balance to keep the tax increase under the cap, and Mr. McKenna had halved his salary increases in a newly negotiated contract.

In order to off set next year’s tax levy rate, Mr. McKenna is proposing the district pull $450,000 from its reserves.

Community members asked the school board if negotiating salary increases is an option to save money next year.

Mr. Diffley said about a couple of years ago the teacher’s union gave back half of their increases for two years, which he said the district was “very grateful for.” The teacher’s current contract is set to expire in a year, he added.

Mr. Diffley said the school board has recently approached the teacher’s union and asked them to open negotiations.

“We continue to talk to the union’s executive committee and we remain hopeful that they will go to their constitutions and ask for the negotiations to take place,” he said.

While those discussions continue, Mr. McKenna said he believes his proposed budget is the best the district can do with the current financial estimates available.

“This is a crisis year,” he said. “After this, I think it’s going to get a little better if we really watch our pennies.”

Although the school board has its regular meeting scheduled for next Thursday, the third budget workshop will be held on April 11.

Scroll down to read Mr. McKenna’s budget presentation.

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James McKenna’s 2013-14 proposed budget presentation, March 14, 2013.