Southold school district mulls cost reductions

It was called as a budget forum, a first opportunity for taxpayers to tell Southold school board members and administrators how they want to see money spent in the 2011-12 term. But aside from a few school officials, only one resident showed up last Thursday to appeal for more belt-tightening.

While seniors have had no hike in their Social Security checks in the past two years, he argued that this board and past boards have given away the shop in negotiating contracts with teachers and staff that are beyond taxpayers’ ability to pay.
“There’s got to be some way to reduce expenses,” said Don Wagner, a voice for the district’s senior citizens and the only non-school employee in attendance.

Mr. Wagner also complained about Southold’s charging New Suffolk less to educate the small district’s secondary school students than Mattituck would charge for the same services.

But board members disputed that. Last year, Southold received $140,000 from New Suffolk without incurring any extra charges for services, board president Paulette Ofrias said.

Any special education expenses that might have been incurred for out-of-district special services, for example, are billed to New Suffolk, board member Judi Fouchet said.

Mattituck would be more expensive because that district has said it would add charges to New Suffolk tuition, even if the larger district incurred no additional expenses for special education services.

Without the tuition New Suffolk pays, Southold taxpayers would have to make up that $140,000 in the budget, Ms. Ofrias said.
Budget talks continue through April when all districts must finalize their funding requests for a vote on May 17.

In a “state of the schools” overview, Superintendent David Gamberg said Southold, like all districts, faces a triple challenge: an anticipated 2 percent state-imposed cap on spending increases, a double-digit increase in funding pension obligations and increases in health insurance costs coupled with contractual obligations.

Not only are schools expecting less state funding, they won’t have federal stimulus money to help bridge the current year’s budget gap.

On the positive side, the district has stabilized its tax rate during the past three years, increasing it by 2.43 percent in 2008, 1.85 percent in 2009 and 1.5 percent in 2010, Mr. Gamberg said.

In what he called “a springboard for a learning conversation,” Mr. Gamberg looked not just at finances but also at academic performance and the condition of the physical plant. But he acknowledged there remains the challenge of preparing today’s students for the global marketplace where they will meet stiff competition and a need to fill jobs that aren’t even on the radar today.

In talking about academic performance, he showed scores from state tests at various grade levels, Regents exams, numbers of students enrolled in advanced placement courses and graduation statistics. He also quoted Albert Einstein, who said, “Not everything that can be counted counts and not everything that counts can be counted.”

The statistics don’t provide enough information to know what’s happening, Mr. Gamberg said. It’s unclear why there was a slight decline in Regents exam performance in 2009, he said. And this year, the state implemented a different system for assessing the same test scores at various grade levels.

While 83.3 percent of Southold third-graders in 2008 showed passing scores in English language arts, only 58.3 percent were considered to have achieved passing scores in 2009, yet the scores remained the same, as the bar was raised for what was considered a passing score. The State Education Department based that on a belief that requiring higher scores would prove to be a better predictor of future success, Mr. Gamberg said.

The district has solved a number of issues affecting the physical plant, and wherever possible the emphasis will continue to be on repairs rather than replacement, the superintendent added.
And he posed several challenges:

• To maintain the quality of opportunities for students faced with a difficult fiscal climate.

• To continue to promote professional and staff development critical to future success.

• To develop and foster a culture of collaboration and innovation, and

• To address rapidly changing trends that will affect students’ future needs.

“I see us as shepherds” of students’ futures and taxpayers’ interests in controlling costs, Mr. Gamberg said. “I know that the ingredients are here.”

The difficulty lies in effectively combining them, he said.

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