Unexpected costs drive up New Suffolk budget by 20%

Describing what he called “catastrophic unanticipated costs,” New Suffolk School Superintendent Robert Feger announced Tuesday that approximately $160,000 has to be added to the school district’s current $788,704 budget — an increase in spending of about 20 percent.

A major reason was the arrival in the district of a student who requires special needs that the district is responsible for providing. Also, a family moved into the district with four children attending parochial school, transportation to which the district must pay for.

Disclosing the problem at Tuesday night’s Board of Education meeting, Mr. Feger blamed the added expenses on “circumstances that could not have been foreseen” when the 2010-11 budget was approved last May.

A formal resolution with the exact amount the district will have to raise from taxes will be on the board’s Sept. 14 agenda. But the end result will be an as yet uncalculated increase in the district’s $26.54 per $100 tax rate for the school year that begins next month.

“All of a sudden, we find ourselves in the middle of the perfect storm,” Mr. Feger said. The only good news for taxpayers was that the hike should be for a single year only, because most of the expenses forcing it are one-time costs, he said.

This summer, a family with a high-needs special education student moved into the district, which is required to pay for the student’s education. The student will be too old for the program after the 2010-11 school year, but for now, the district has to pay the costs.

Adding to the district’s unanticipated expenses is another new family with four children who attend parochial school. The district is responsible for their transportation because their school lies within the 15-mile radius set by state requirements. It must also bear the burden for their textbooks and certain health costs, while the parents pay tuition costs.

On top of that, according to New Suffolk school board president Tony Dill, the district has just been billed by the Southold School District for approximately $10,000 in special education and transportation costs for New Suffolk students that it could not have anticipated.

“We can’t put it to a vote because it is a mandate,” Mr. Feger said about the increased spending. “We have to do it.”

He and Mr. Dill spoke with state legislators and state education department officials to try to find money to offset the special education spending, only to be told to find money within the district’s existing budget.

The district had approximately $32,000 set aside in a tuition reserve fund in case one or two additional secondary school students entered the district, requiring additional tuition expenses. At the elementary school level, economies of scale enable the district to absorb more children without dramatically affecting costs. But at the secondary school level, New Suffolk must pay a per-student tuition rate to Southold, Mr. Dill said.

About $4,000 more was scraped together from general fund spending, Mr. Dill said. But he added that New Suffolk can’t operate without reserves this year. And the $36,000 doesn’t begin to pay the additional expenses, Mr. Feger said.

Add to the unanticipated expenses a potential $50,000 cost to support the Mid East Suffolk Teacher Resource and Computer Training Center salary of Martha Kennelly. Ms. Kennelly, who was principal of New Suffolk School, took a leave of absence six years ago to lead the technology center that provides support services and best practices instructions to teachers and teachers aides.

In past years, the district has been reimbursed for much of Ms. Kennelly’s salary and benefits. But with the crunch in state spending, all funding was cut from the MESTRACT program. Bringing Ms. Kennelly back to New Suffolk would have cost the district $57,000 more than it spends to keep her at MESTRACT and also would have disrupted the district’s current three-person teaching team, Mr. Feger said.

“Martha may be a terrific teacher, but things have changed and it would be difficult for her to transition back,” he said. He noted that she had expressed similar feelings. She couldn’t be reached before press deadline.

New Suffolk may not have to pay all of the $50,000 for which it has to budget. MESTRACT has some funds left from which it will cover costs for the first half of the year. And if additional funding from any source should be forthcoming, it would offset the burden for New Suffolk, Mr. Feger said.

The combination of all the extra expenses has “never occurred in the history of this district,” the superintendent said.

Mr. Dill predicted that when the board budgets for the 2011-12 school year, spending will return to a level similar to what was originally planned for the upcoming school year.

Mr. Feger pointed out that while the hit to taxpayers will be dramatic, for solace they need only look to neighboring districts paying substantially higher taxes. Southold taxpayers are assessed at $73.45 per $100 of assessed valuation. The figure in Mattituck-Cutchogue is $78.73 and in Greenport, it’s $62.28.

At the September meeting, Mr. Feger said he expects to provide figures showing exactly how taxpayers at various levels will be affected by the additional spending.

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