Southold community rallies against rumored school cuts

JENNIFER GUSTAVSON PHOTO | Southold school board president
JENNIFER GUSTAVSON PHOTO | Southold school board president Paulette Ofrias, left, and Superintendent David Gamberg at Wednesday night’s budget workshop.

When Southold High School business teacher Kathy Williams arrived at her job Monday, she was feeling pretty good. The DECA club she advises received several awards last week during a three-day state competition in Rochester.

Monday was also her birthday.

What started out as a good day took a downturn after she received notification from the district that the position she’s held for the past 24 years could be reduced to part-time or eliminated due to budget constraints the district is grappling with as it prepares next year’s spending plan, she said.

Ms. Williams’ name was on a list distributed by PTA president Angela Tondo to members of the community this week that named other positions and programs rumored to be on the chopping block.

Superintendent David Gamberg described the list as “inaccurate.” After the two-hour meeting, he declined to say how many employees received similar notifications as Ms. Williams did because it is a personnel matter.

During the school board’s first 2013-14 budget workshop Wednesday night, Ms. Tondo apologized for her actions and thanked the audience for participating in the budget talks.

“It was not my intention to give misinformation to anyone,” she said. “When I shared the information I was given, I believed it to be true. The job of the PTA is to keep its members informed and by inviting them here tonight I hope that we were able to do that.”

About 70 parents, district employees, students and graduates attended the meeting with over a dozen of them applauding Ms. Williams’ hard work and asked the school board to find a way to keep her full-time.

Many graduates said they attribute their success in college to Ms. Williams’ guidance and praised her business courses and DECA club because they feel those programs prepared them for the real world.

Blaise Linn, who graduated in 2011, said Ms. Williams has been a mentor and friend to many students and believes they’ve counted on her for instruction and advice.

“For years, Ms. Williams has stood as a beacon for confused juniors and seniors as they stumble through the college selection and application process,” he said. “ On behalf of myself and the many students who could not be here because they are away at the college Ms. Williams helped get them admitted into … I implore you to make sure Southold High School does not lose an asset as valuable as Ms. Williams.”

Student school board member and senior class president Preston Jolliver described Ms. Williams as his “second mom.”

“Compared to other schools, we don’t have a lot, but what we do have is the best,” he said. “Ms. Williams will tell you when you’re doing something wrong so you can get it right the next time … To lose her would be a great disappointment.”

Following the meeting, a teary-eyed Ms. Williams was surrounded by her students who told her they weren’t going to let her go “without a fight.”

Ms. Williams said it was “wonderful” to hear the outpouring of support from parents and students and said she believes the evening validated her career.

“The school board doesn’t have an easy job right now,” she said. “It’s stressful for them as well. My feeling is they should do everything they can to keep me because I make a difference. Not to sound conceited, but I do [make a difference].”

Other parents and students said they were concerned about rumors of eliminating music, art, foreign language and the Robotics program next year.

Mr. Gamberg stressed nothing has been decided yet and said he and the school board are looking into a variety of ways to maintain current programs.

Some preliminary cost-saving ideas Mr. Gamberg said the district is considering include a referendum to scale back transportation costs by increasing the walking distance radius for students and reducing salary-rate increases for all district employees.

When parents asked if the district is in contract talks with its employees, Mr. Gamberg said discussions have taken place. He didn’t elaborate because the negotiations are ongoing.

Prior to the public comment portion of the meeting, Mr. Gamberg painted a gloomy picture of the district’s current financial situation.

In order to roll over the current budget, Mr. Gamberg said the 2013-14 spending plan would need to increase to $28.6 million, up nearly 6 percent. The bulk of rising costs is caused by contractual salary increases and benefits, he said.

While a state law passed in 2010 caps year-to-year increases in the tax levy — the total amount the district collects from taxpayers — at 2 percent, the district is allowed to exceed the state’s mandate because expenses such as pensions and capital costs are exempt.

Mr. Gamberg said Southold is allowed to raise the tax levy to 4.01 percent without obtaining 60 percent voter approval. If the school board decided to pierce the tax cap beyond that allowable limit, Mr. Gamberg questioned if the community would approve it in May, given recent voter turnout. He said twice in the past six years the budget passed with only 59 percent approval.

“I don’t like those odds,” he said, adding that if the district was forced to go on contingency, it would face an additional $900,000 gap and would have to cut a total of $1.6 million from the budget. “You don’t want to know what that could look like.”

Mr. Gamberg also discussed the district’s decline in revenue. Since the 2008-09 school year, he said Southold’s state aid has reduced by 20 percent. Under Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year, Southold would receive about $1.4 million in state aid, down nearly 12 percent compared to the current school year.

Mr. Gamberg also said student enrollment has dropped from 1,019 students in 2005 to 867 in the current school year. He added that enrollment has reduced by 11 percent over the past five years.

“We may need to scale back,” Mr. Gamberg said. “We want to preserve opportunities not just for the next year or two, but for many years. That is a challenge.”

School board president Paulette Ofrias stressed that Wednesday night’s budget workshop was the first step in preparing next year’s spending plan and said the district is struggling with the tax levy cap and reductions in both state and federal aid.

“None of those are things we can control as a board member,” she said. “We’re not the bad guys here. We’re caught in the middle of this perfect storm.”

Although the school board has its regular meeting scheduled for next Wednesday, Ms. Ofrias said the second budget workshop will be held on April 3.

[email protected]