School’s errors come back to haunt us

Every year, typically at the start of budget discussions, the superintendent of the Mattituck-Cutchogue School District delivers an impassioned performance, proclaiming a “bare bones” budget with threats of cuts to student services and potential layoffs in staffing if the budget is defeated.

This year that performance came a bit early, and he just might be right.

“District Superintendent James McKenna is pretty certain that by the time next year’s budget talks are in the works, the administration and school board will be at the helm of the Titanic … they see an iceberg dead ahead,” as reported in the Dec. 17 Suffolk Times. Mr. McKenna blames contractual increases in teacher salaries and major hikes in health insurance costs, as well as decrease in state aid.

What he forgot to mention was that it was Mr. McKenna, as well as the previous superintendent and several current board members, who encouraged and approved those salary increases, hence subsequent pensions increases. The same individuals forecast student enrollment increases to warrant a $26.1 million building expansion, which the taxpayers will be paying for until 2030.

Five years ago, a group of concerned community members challenged the administration and school board to act in a fiscally prudent manner, to move away from self-insured status and to follow the lead of Fortune 500 companies in reducing operating costs. Those businesses were not awarding multi-year raises. They were asking employees to contribute to insurance costs and participate in givebacks to save the companies and the workers’ jobs.

Instead of heeding such advice, the school board agreed to a five-year teachers’ contract, with additional step raises contributing to future skyrocketing pensions. At that time, “For Sale” signs dotted the landscape, as the community rumbled that they could not keep up with higher taxes. For the first time in the history of the school district, the budget was defeated and those of us who urged conservative spending and a reduction in the magnitude of the building project were ostracized for our “forward thinking.” With all indicators showing enrollment shrinking, not expanding, we continued to urge the school to delay the expansion of the building. Some school staff members admitted privately that enrollment projections were inflated and unsubstantiated, and that the size of the building project was excessive.

But the building was built, which we now need to staff, heat, cool and clean, and the raises awarded. Administrative promotions and raises were and are granted. One highly paid administrative staff member, who declared his intent to retire, was awarded a promotion and a raise one year prior to retirement. Ever wonder why pension costs are so high?

A district that survived an austerity budget years ago now has declining enrollment and more layers of administrators than ever. The public, which assumed the administration would act responsibly after the budget defeat in 2005, has gone to sleep, assuming that elected officials would protect our interests. Board meeting minutes on mufsd.com document the spending, promotions and raises for the administration responsible for letting costs run out of control.

The new governor stated in his inaugural address, “High property taxes from school districts … have fueled a dangerous exodus of residents and businesses. Taxpayers on Long Island are imprisoned in their homes because they cannot afford to pay the property taxes.” Two-thirds of Southold Town property taxes go directly to the schools. Even the author of the demographic study that predicted the student enrollment increase, Jonathan T. Hughes, Ph.D., now concedes “… what we are going to see is a decline [in enrollment] right through 2020.” (Newsday, 1/5/11).

District enrollment was reported at 1,579 in 2005 but 1,514 in 2010. In 2005, the projected enrollment for 2010 was 1,888, but the district has 300 fewer students than the 2005 projection.

The superintendent and board members were all told over and over that the community could not sustain runaway spending and a long-term bond commitment, but disregarded the message. Now it’s services for students and staff jobs that may be threatened. This district simply cannot afford a superintendent with a salary in excess of $157,506 and an assistant superintendent/principal at $145,907 with another principal, two assistant principals, two deans and numerous other department heads.

The administrators and board members did not act responsibly to protect the interests of the students and taxpayers. If this is indeed the Titanic, put the students, faculty and taxpayers in the lifeboats and let the administrators and long-standing board members who allowed this to happen to become casualties of their own arrogance, greed and ineptitude.

Ms. Crosser is a resident of Cutchogue.

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