Mattituck school chief says surplus won’t cover lost state aid

The Mattituck-Cutchogue School District will likely spend $1.3 million below what’s budgeted this year, but district officials say the governor’s assertion that districts have enough reserve funds to make up for state aid cuts is false.

Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposed 2011  budget would slash Mattituck’s state aid by about $424,000. In addition, the district must pay $400,000 more into the state employee retirement fund next year, and also faces contractual increases in salaries and other increased operating expenses, Superintendent James McKenna said during Thursday’s school board meeting.

If the district taps its fund balance to keep taxes from rising, there will be little left to cover unforeseen expenses in years to come, Mr. McKenna added.

Mattituck’s draft 2011-12 budget is to be released during a March 8 special meeting. Late last year Mr. McKenna said the new budget will call for the elimination of 10 jobs. He did not say how many of them might be teachers.

The district has done a good job keeping spending below the budget in recent years, and has already tightened its belt to the point where it will not be able to replenish the fund balance by further spending reductions, Mr. McKenna told the board.

In addition, he said $200,000 of the current fund balance is attributed to three long-time teachers taking advantage of an early retirement incentive last summer, a windfall that came after this year’s budget passed and is not likely to be repeated.

The district used $900,000 in fund reserves to offset the tax rate hike in the current school year’s budget.

Mr. McKenna did note that a much-rumored 2 percent property tax cap proposed by the governor will likely not be passed by the state Legislature in time to affect the 2011-12 school budget.

Still, he said, the district must consider long terms needs when deciding how to spend its anticipated reserve funds in light of the likelihood that the cap will pass later this year.

“At some point … there’ll be nothing left,” Mr. McKenna said.

He added in an interview Friday that the drastic choices some school districts have had to face — including the layoff of a third of the teaching staff at the Sachem School and the 40 staff positions proposed to be cut in Riverhead — could force the legislature to examine other school reforms in conjunction with the tax cap. They include reworking the state pension system, providing relief from unfunded mandates and picking up more of districts’ special education costs.

“I think the state’s not going to let the districts fall off the cliff,” he said. “My prediction is that what’s going to happen is all these topics are going to be on the table.”

In other business, school officials gave tours Thursday of the district’s new Mac lab, which has 60 new Macintosh computers in two rooms in the upstairs technology rooms where the school’s morning TV show is taped.

Technology teacher John Roslak and technology director Gerri Doherty have been working to allow all the computers in the lab to interface seamlessly with one another. While the computers are able to “talk to each other,” Mr. Roslak said that it hasn’t been easy for people using the computers to transfer their knowledge of PCs to the Macs.

“The terminology is totally different,” he said. “You have to learn almost a different language.”

The computers also use different programs. Students had been editing video using FinalCut Pro on the PCs, but are gradually learning to use the Adobe Premiere video editing program on the Macs, though Mr. Roslak said that many students are having a hard time making the adjustment to the new programs.

School Board president Jerry Diffley commented that social media sites, long belittled by many as a waste of time, have now begun to play a major role in world events, such as the recent revolution in Egypt, making it more important than ever that students leave Mattituck with a broad-based knowledge of how computers work.

“Every corporation is going to this technology,” said assistant superintendent Anne Smith. She added that many college courses now require students to complete part of their coursework through internet communications.

“It’s not to be taken lightly,” said Mr. Roslak of the new technology, as he listed a number of his former students who are now working in television production and computer design-related fields. “To communicate visually is so important.”

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