Despite anxiety in all quarters over an economy stuck in low gear, taxpayers in all mainland Southold school districts gave a respectable margin of approval to their budgets Tuesday. Only tiny Fishers Island turned thumbs down on its spending plan.
But while Fishers Island voters rejected their school budget by a vote of 28-39, they approved the library budget by 47-19. Details on the Fishers Island vote weren’t available at press time.
Voters in the Mattituck-Cutchogue School District passed their $37.36 million budget 703 to 552. A total of 1,255 ballots were cast — a slightly lower turnout than usual, according to district officials, who said the rain may have kept some voters away.
Sitting board president Jerry Diffley was re-elected with 807 votes, vice president Charles Anderson was re-elected with 778 votes and Laura Jens-Smith, who received 740 votes, joins the board to fill the vacant seat of Debra Cahill, who resigned. Ms. Jens-Smith will serve for one year and will then face a re-election campaign. She was sworn in immediately on Tuesday night. Mr. Anderson and Mr. Diffley begin their new three-year terms July 1.
The fourth contestant, former board member Joan Ferris, received 591 votes.
Mr. Diffley read out the vote tallies just after 9 p.m. Tuesday to a tense crowd waiting in the Mattituck High School gymnasium.
He wished Ms. Ferris good luck and said he hoped she would consider running again.
“I’m relieved; that was too close for comfort,” Mr. Diffley said of the budget vote. “I think the rain kept people away. But it passed, and that’s all good. I think Laura will be a great addition to the board.”
“I’m very happy. I’m excited,” said Ms. Jens-Smith, a nurse with two children who attend school in the district. She said she was surprised at the results. She will attend her first school board meeting as a member this Thursday night.
Buoyed by early returns from Greenport, where the budget passed, Southold Superintendent David Gamberg and school board members were cautiously optimistic as they awaited the closing of their polls.
When the vote count was in, the district’s $26.3 million budget passed 645 to 447. Residents will see a 2.08 percent tax hike to support the spending. And voters said yes to a proposition enabling the board to spend $250,000 from its reserve fund to purchase two new school buses and one or two vans that will be used to transport special education students to out-of-district placements.
Newcomer Scott Latham, a Southold police sergeant, was the top vote-getter with 750, while incumbent Scott DeSimone won re-election with 672 votes. Both men ran unopposed.
A flier circulated in the community by the Educated Taxpayers group, which contained what board members characterized as “misinformation,” gave administrators and board members reason to worry, they said.
Group organizer MaryAnn Fleischman denies that information contained in those fliers is incorrect and maintains that her group has just been disseminating information in a form that taxpayers can understand. The flier attributes 75 percent of budget costs to salaries and benefits for teachers, she said. In Greenport, she maintains, approximately 25 teachers will average salaries of $100,000 or more, while in Mattituck-Cutchogue, the number is 76. In Southold, 61 teachers will earn more than $100,000, Ms. Fleischman said. She counts both base salaries and extra payments some teachers received for services such as advising school clubs.
“I’m very delighted that the community supported both the budget and bus propositions,” Mr. Gamberg said. Now it’s incumbent on the administration and board to continue to do long-term planning to avoid tax spikes and to “keep a lid on costs,” he said. Prior to the ballot count, he worried that the bus proposition might not pass, concerned that taxpayers may not have understood that the expenditure of money wouldn’t affect the budget, since the funds are already sitting in a special reserve fund.
“I just want to thank the community for once again supporting our students,” said board president Paulette Ofrias. During the poll hours, workers had told her that, as is typical of most years, a lot of senior residents turned out to vote. And while the seniors’ spokesman, Don Wagner, has been critical of the budget, it was that group “who helped pass our budget,” Mr. Ofrias said.
With the new budget, Mr. Wagner said, the district’s per student costs will increase from $28,000 to $29,500. But he includes numbers such as transportation and special education that the New York State Education Department doesn’t. Because such factors vary with circumstances district-to-district, the SED believes that not calculating them in the per-pupil cost provides a better means of comparison between districts.
Despite the win, Ms. Ofrias said she’s aware that 460 voters rejected the budget and said the board must be attentive to their concerns as it continues its long-term planning.
“We weren’t completely blown away or discouraged” that the budgets passed, Ms. Fleischman said. “It wasn’t a runaway.” She predicts that unless contracts change, budgets will begin to be defeated in future years.
Southold Free Library director Caroline MacArthur admitted it had “been a long day” awaiting results and said she was very relieved. Last year, voters turned down a $7 million building expansion project, making Ms. MacArthur nervous about the budget vote. But the tally was 620 to 460 for the $831,860 spending plan, which will result in a tax increase of 72 cents, to $25.46 per $1,000 of assessed valuation.
“I just love this community,” Greenport Superintendent Michael Comanda said after the district’s $14.1 million budget passed by a comfortable margin, with a vote of 282 to 65.
“I am so pleased that the voters support us,” board president Tina Volinski said. Both she and Mr. Comanda had worried that they might find tough going because Greenport’s tax rate will increase by 5.6 percent, higher than the rate in any surrounding districts. That’s not because of any huge spending increase, but because unlike the other districts, Greenport had no reserves to offset cutbacks in state and federal funding.
Incumbent board member Michael Mazzaferro ran unopposed for a second three-year term and garnered 300 votes. Jim Dinizio received one write-in vote.
Although taxpayers had expressed a lot of anger toward the Oysterponds Board of Education over its buyout of former superintendent Stuart Rachlin’s contract, by the time budget talks rolled around, no one mentioned the issue, except to ask where the money for the buyout was reflected in the $5.6 million budget.
It came as little surprise that taxpayers approved the budget, which will lower their taxes by 1.53 percent even though spending increases slightly by 1.44 percent.
“I’m very pleased that our budget passed,” said new part-time Superintendent Joan Frisicano.
With two open school board seats and only two candidates running, Jeff Demarest received 182 votes and Janice Caufield 151 votes. Both begin their terms July 1, when Walter Strohmeyer and Kathy Syron retire from the board.
It was a walk in the park in New Suffolk, where voters approved the $645,330 budget by a vote of 37-1. Board president Tony Dill received 32 votes in his bid to add another three years to the nine he has already served.
Because New Suffolk’s Board of Education was forced to increase spending last fall by $159,000 to account for unforeseen one-time costs, the district was able to roll back spending by 21 percent for the 2011-12 school year and give residents a 23.5 percent decrease in their tax rate.