Oysterponds residents to vote on identical budget Tuesday

JENNIFER GUSTAVSON FILE PHOTO | Oysterponds school board president Deborah Dumont at a meeting earlier this spring.

Nearly a month after Orient and East Marion residents rejected the Oysterponds School District’s proposed budget, voters will be asked again Tuesday to approve next year’s spending plan.

The school board has proposed a $5.35 million package for the 2012-13 school year, with spending down 4.85 percent from the current school year. Residents will be asked to vote on the same proposal that was shot down May 15 by 57 percent of voters. At that time 253 residents voted no and 192 yes.

While school officials said the district’s budget represents the lowest reduction in spending of all Long Island schools, they believed the contentious issue of secondary school choice caused voters to reject the spending plan.

The Oysterponds district, which operates a K-6 school, currently sends its secondary students to neighboring Greenport. In March, Oysterponds designated both Greenport and Mattituck as secondary school districts, allowing contract negotiations with both. Once those contracts were finalized, they would have been put up for a public referendum.

In the wake of the election defeat and in the hope of obtaining public support the second time around, the board has since voted unanimously to end contract negotiations with the Mattituck-Cutchogue district.

Although dropping the contract negotiations has been the most significant change since the spending plan was defeated last month, the board has also made other budget tweaks.

During a public hearing to discuss the spending plan Tuesday night, the board voted 4-2 in favor of applying an additional $100,000, for a total of $200,000, from the fund balance to offset the estimated 2.5 percent tax levy. The district’s tax levy proposal is below the state’s newly mandated 2 percent cap on the tax levy because certain expenses, such as pensions, are excluded from the cap.

Board vice president Dorothy-Dean Thomas and member Janice Caufield voted against the proposal. Board president Deborah Dumont was absent from the meeting.

Superintendent Joan Frisicano declined to say how much the move would decrease the tax levy.

In addition to addressing residents’ concerns about property taxes, Ms. Frisicano defended her recommendation to budget for a pre-Kindergarten program next year.

The board has approved spending about $30,900 for a part-time preschool teacher in addition to purchasing textbooks and other supplies.

But some residents said they believed Oysterponds shouldn’t add a pre-K program because it could have a detrimental effect on a similar, independent service provided by the nearby Orient Congregational Church.

Greenport resident Greg Wallace submitted a petition signed by 97 people requesting the board abandon its pre-K plans.

“Some of the decisions being discussed, we feel, undermine strong foundations that we’ve built in this community over decades,” he said. “A preschool is a great idea, but it undermines a pillar of this community.”

School board member Linda Goldsmith described offering a comparable pre-K program as an “elephant in the room” because she believed residents would stop sending their children to the church to save money because the Oysterponds preschool program would be free for residents.

“It will destroy the program at the church,” Ms. Goldsmith said.

Ms. Frisicano and principal Francoise Wittenburg said it has always been their intention to collaborate with the church in developing a preschool program.

But an apologetic Ms. Frisicano conceded she hasn’t done a good job communicating with the church in coming up with a plan and hopes to finalize the Oysterponds preschool program with its neighbor in the coming weeks.

A preschool program is one part of Ms. Frisicano’s stated plan to invigorate student achievement. Oysterponds has also budgeted for about $19,000 worth of iPads for next year. Fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders will learn research and reading techniques on the tablets.

“There are things in this budget that will take Oysterponds to new places,” Ms. Frisicano said.

Although the proposed spending plan includes enriching the school’s science, technology, engineering and mathematics program known as STEM, as well as providing professional development for teachers, it also includes laying off the school’s only librarian.

Ms. Frisicano has said she believes turning the library into a “literacy center” will be more beneficial to students.

A special education teacher position has been added back into the budget since the board last presented its spending plan, Ms. Frisicano said, but a special education teacher assistant will still be excessed due to a reduction in special ed enrollment.

Oysterponds currently has nine special ed students and anticipates seven next year.

Since a contingent budget would require the district to reduce spending by $125,000, Ms. Frisicano has said it’s possible another faculty position would be cut next year, possibly either a first- or second-grade teacher, should the budget again fall to defeat.

While the district’s “collaborative teaching model” of combining first and second grade next year involves including a teacher for each grade, one of those positions may be removed if the school is forced to reduce spending, Ms. Frisicano said at a previous board meeting.

The budget re-vote will take place June 19 at the school’s gym from 3 to 9 p.m.

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