New taxpayers’ group offers concerns on Southold school budget

Just when the Southold school board thought it was done with this year’s budget debate, a representative of a new taxpayers’ group landed on the doorstep challenging the spending plan.

Speaking during the board’s April 27 session, MaryAnn Fleischman of The Educated Taxpayers said the $200,000 the district will save in each of the next two years through the teachers agreeing to cut pay hikes and give back $2,000 apiece, is “a drop in the bucket.”

She and about 25 members of her group have been making the rounds of local school board meetings complaining that residents can’t afford ever-increasing tax bills to pay escalating teacher salaries.

“I appreciate the gesture,” Ms. Fleischman said of the union’s givebacks. But the majority of North Fork residents aren’t making as much money as most of the teachers, she said, noting that salaries and benefits account for the majority of school spending.

Whether or not taxpayers agree with Ms. Fleischman’s assessment will be revealed by how they vote on the district’s proposed $26.2 million budget, said board member Dr. John Crean.

Other members and teachers union president Mike Carver were having none of Ms. Fleischman’s effort to minimize the impact of the givebacks on the teachers.

Teachers weren’t obligated to reopen their contract and give back anything, board member Judi Fouchet said. County-wide, there are other public servants who aren’t giving anything back, she said.

Ms. Fleischman argued that most teachers make $100,000 or more, but Mr. Carver said that’s not the case and that many of his members make $45,000 to $50,000 and will certainly feel the impact of the salary cut. Southold teachers are among the lowest paid in Suffolk County, he said.

Ms. Fleischman and her members have been examining local budgets in Southold, Mattituck-Cutchogue, Greenport and Oysterponds, pulling out numbers on salaries and benefits to inform the public about how much the districts are spending on staffing.

The group, which called itself The Working Poor Taxpayer before discovering that many members weren’t poor, has changed its name, but not its goal, Ms. Fleischman said.

The group took shape in March, said Ms. Fleischman, after she studied her tax bill and decided she had to do something.

In an interview Tuesday afternoon, Ms. Fleischman said she doesn’t expect to defeat school budgets this year because the tax increases in most districts are at historic lows. Still, she said it’s important to point out that the public servants’ salary scale “is out of control.”

In response to criticism questioning why she didn’t advocate for salary reductions several years ago, while she was a social worker in the Greenport School District, Ms. Fleischman said her salary at the time was $45,000, not $100,000.

“I’m cutting my nose off to spite my face,” she said of her anti-tax efforts, noting that she still looks to the schools to employ her as a social work consultant.

If the budget season ends with the passage of all five Southold Town school budgets, The Educated Taxpayers will continue their efforts, she said. That will include examining how school district consolidation might affect the bottom line.

Without salary changes, districts will go bankrupt, she said.

Ms. Fleischman’s comments followed a presentation by the school’s award-winning robotics team. Such programs prepare students to compete in the global marketplace, said Superintendent David Gamberg.

Programs like robotics require students to find practical applications for their classroom studies and many Southold students have received generous college scholarships as a result of the team’s accomplishments, the superintendent added.

That prompted a discussion of the recent school play, “Little Shop of Horrors,” in which board members and residents agreed, students had turned in professional-quality performances.

“Students here are getting a very excellent education,” said former board member Don Wagner. But he still argued, “It’s costing too much money.”

“To be fair, we have done a pretty good job this year,” Dr. Crean said of the board’s budgeting process. He added that only one district in Suffolk County, Montauk, will have a lower tax levy.

“But nobody wants to reduce spending,” Mr. Wagner said.

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