Lack of reserves will raise Greenport school tax rate

SUFFOLK TIMES FILE PHOTO | A lack of reserves combined with a cut to state aid will help lead to a tax increase in the Greenport School District next year.

Greenporters in May will be asked to approve a $14.1 million school budget proposal for the 2011-12 school year, a spending increase of 1.9 percent above the current $13.84 million budget. Because the district has no reserve funds to help meet expenses, the tax rate is expected to be 5.6 percent, compared to 4.5 percent for the current year, according to Superintendent Michael Comanda.

Greenport is among 15 percent of Long Island school districts without reserve funds to apply toward next year’s spending, he said.

Besides the lack of a surplus, the district has had to plan for a reduction in state aid, $1.12 million for the 2011-12 school year compared to $1.23 million in the current year.

Mr. Comanda and school board members had been hoping they could convince Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state legislators to help districts without reserve funds by minimizing their cuts in state aid. The legislature restored only $59,959 from what the governor had proposed in aid for Greenport.

When Mr. Comanda took the helm in Greenport in August 2009, the district cut the tax rate by 2 percent. It already had been holding the line on taxes for several years by then, even as other districts were seeing average increases of 7 percent, Mr. Comanda said. The district’s conservative budgeting left it with depleted reserves, Mr. Comanda said.

Budgeting has been so tight that the board initially planned to eliminate the positions of two popular young teachers last year.

Those cuts were averted at the 11th hour when the state stepped in and offered a retirement package that prompted some older teachers to leave the district.

There are unavoidable spending increases in the budget proposal, Mr. Comanda said. They include an 11.5 percent increase to fund the state’s Teachers Retirement System; a 16.03 percent increase for the Employees Retirement System that covers other staffers; a 9 percent hike in health insurance premiums; salary contractual obligations; and a 3.4 percent increase in FICA/Medicare costs. He also said there were increases for fuel oil and gasoline.

The budget includes plans to drop one reading teacher and end the district’s Reading First initiative, which helps students who are having trouble reading. The board felt it could save money giving up the initiative and still serve the students by implementing a new state-mandated program called Response To Intervention this fall, almost a year before the district is required to launch it.

Some parents have been upset with the cancellation of the Reading First initiative. Mr. Comanda said at a budget hearing last week that he would carefully assess the new RTI program and take steps to shore up reading instruction if necessary.

The only other item that received public attention during the school board’s budget planning process was a $13,000 item that remains in the budget to provide stipends for teachers advising various clubs. Board members defended the expenditure as a means of retaining activities important to a lot of students.

Mr. Comanda took a salary freeze in the current school year and both principals, Leonard Skuggevik and Joseph Tsaveras, have accepted salary freezes for the 2011-12 school year.

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