New Suffolk appeals for help to handle looming shortfall

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03/18/2015 12:00 PM |
New Suffolk parent Mary Steinfeld expresses concern during the district's meeting Tuesday night.  (Credit: Jen Nuzzo)

New Suffolk parent Mary Steinfeld expresses concern during the district’s meeting Tuesday night. (Credit: Jen Nuzzo)

Facing a budget gap of nearly $160,000 for 2015-16 caused by a unique situation involving a teacher who decided to return to the tiny district from a special assignment, the New Suffolk Board of Education wants input from the community on how best to handle the looming shortfall.

About 40 residents packed the elementary school during a special meeting Tuesday night, during which school board president Tony Dill fielded questions and suggestions after outlining how the projected deficit developed. 

If the district — which runs a single schoolhouse — decided to roll over the budget with current staffing and programs, Mr. Dill said he believes the tax levy would need to increase by about $160,000 to cover a nearly 21 percent hike in expenses, most of which is he said is the result of Martha Kennelly’s unexpected decision last year to return to the district.

New Suffolk voters approved a $1,202,908 budget in May 2013 before Ms. Kennelly decided to return.

Ms. Kennelly had been director at the Mid East Suffolk Teacher Center in Ridge since 2004. The center provides professional development, technology training and resources to Suffolk County educators. Teachers on special assignment at the center remain contracted faculty members in their home districts — though the home districts don’t pay their salaries — enabling them to return to their previous jobs if desired or if the program encounters budget cuts.

Ms. Kennelly said at Tuesday’s meeting she told the school board in 2013 that she wanted to return to the district if someone resigned and didn’t understand why no one contacted her after former head teacher Holly Plymale resigned in May 2014 for health reasons.

Ms. Kennelly, who’s allowed to return to the district under state law, said she’s been mistreated since returning to New Suffolk and claimed that school officials “asked parents not to speak” to her.

“My résumé is the only one omitted from the school website — I don’t know why,” she said at the start of her remarks Tuesday. “All the other staff résumés are posted, including the secretary’s, so I’ll tell you about myself.”

Ms. Kennelly then outlined her 21 years of experience and said she has an administrative certification, as well as certification in special education, art and grades K-6. Her salary last year was $115,000, she said.

“The degree to which I’ve been allowed to work has been very restrictive,” said Ms. Kennelly, who’s been assigned to draft Common Core-aligned curriculum for the district. “I’m hopeful that I can be back in the classroom next year working with my colleagues. I know I have a lot to offer them and I know they have a lot to offer me.”

As for the budget, Mr. Dill said the state-mandated tax cap only allows the district to raise the levy by $13,000 to $14,000 next year without a supermajority approval from voters.

Although the district was able to close a $150,000 deficit this school year through private donations and savings realized through lower oil costs and tuition expenses, Mr. Dill said he believes tough choices about staffing and program offerings will need to be made for next year’s budget because the district can’t sustain its current expenses.

The crowd appeared divided about what the district should do. Some parents said they like the current teachers and staff. Others said they believed the district should use Ms. Kennelly more efficiently.

Resident Mary Steinfeld took exception to Mr. Dill asking the crowd for its opinion on staffing and said she believed the decision should be made based on enrollment and student needs.

“No matter what, you have a teacher on the payroll that you can use,” she said, referring to Ms. Kennelly. “No matter what dents she makes in this budget, you should use her. She’s already being paid.”

After the meeting, Mr. Dill described Ms. Kennelly’s job responsibilities as appropriate.

“I think she is being utilized to her potential,” he said. “She’s spent more time as an administrator running a teacher center than she has been a classroom teacher. It seems to me one of the things talked about all the time is how to teach the Common Core and we don’t have anything in the way of a guideline for it.”

Mr. Dill added that former superintendent Mike Comanda, whose last day was Friday, had been meeting with Ms. Kennelly regularly, reviewing her progress, and found she had been doing a good job in her new role.

A draft of the budget is expected to be presented at the board’s next meeting April 16.

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