Returning teacher breaks the budget in tiny New Suffolk

07/09/2014 1:27 PM |

After learning that a teacher who’s been on special assignment elsewhere for 10 years has decided to return to the district, the New Suffolk school board notified community members of a “significant” and unanticipated deficit in its 2014-15 school budget.

During Tuesday night’s board meeting, Superintendent Michael Comanda announced that an instructor who has been director at the Mid East Suffolk Teacher Center in Ridge since 2004 now wants to resume her position at New Suffolk Elementary School.

Though school officials wouldn’t mention the teacher’s name, it’s clear from previous Suffolk Times articles that the employee is Martha Kennelly.

The center provides professional development, technology training and resources to Suffolk County educators.

Teachers on special assignment at the center remain contracted faculty members in their home districts, enabling them to return to their previous jobs if wanted — or if the center program encounters budget cuts, New Suffolk school board president Tony Dill explained.

For the past 10 years, he said, New Suffolk has paid Ms. Kennelly’s salary and benefits and been reimbursed by the county.

“Technically, she never left,” he said. He added that she also accrued tenure time while working at Mid East, making her the longest-tenured of the three contracted teachers at New Suffolk Elementary School.

Mr. Dill said Ms. Kennelly notified him in writing in May that she was interested in returning to the school — just one day after the 2014-15 school year budget passed in a public vote.

The problem now is that the board did not budget enough to cover Ms. Kennelly’s salary. Instead, it budgeted only enough for a first-year teacher to replace Holly Plymale, the former head teacher who recently resigned for health reasons.

Because Ms. Kennelly is a 20-year tenured instructor her return will cost the district $146,000 in salary and benefits, about $70,000 more than what was budgeted Ms. Plymale’s replacement.

In May, New Suffolk voters approved a spending plan of  $1.2 million, up $13,000 from the year prior, according to prior news coverage.

“Had we known this in time, we could have adjusted the budget,” Mr. Dill said, adding that he isn’t sure why Ms. Kennelly wants to return to the district.

In an interview Wednesday morning, Ms. Kennelly said she wrote to the board in May after learning from a Suffolk Times article that Holly Plymale had resigned.

“Although I’ve had wonderful successes as a teacher center director, I have never had an experience that compared to my teaching at New Suffolk,” she said. “I have always missed the children. This past year, I’ve been working with some extraordinary teachers in elementary settings and it really drove home how much I miss the interaction with the students and community.”

Mr. Dill said that he and Mr. Comanda will conduct a review of school programs and staff and look for areas where cuts can be made to fill the budget hole.

“Certainly we are not hiring another teacher,” Mr. Dill said. “We have three tenured teaching positions and we have three tenured teachers on staff.”

Mr. Comanda said the district has the option of applying for a tax anticipatory note — in essence, a loan from the state — to fund the gap, though it would need to be paid back in full plus interest.

From what Mr. Dill can recall, the district has not ever had to apply for such a loan in the past, though Mr. Comanda said neighboring districts have been known to go that route during budget pinches.

Mr. Dill said district officials will be weighing any and all options they can think of.

“We will come up with a solution by August,” Mr. Dill said. “We have to.”

In other district news, Mr. Dill announced the board has parted ways with Babette Cornine, who was recently appointed to fill the district’s newly created business manager position in January.

Calling the split “mutual,” district officials have since appointed Angela Kohl to the position, taking on the responsibilities of the district treasurer, and them some.

Ms. Kohl, who is a principal accountant at the Suffolk County Executive’s office started her part-time position with the district July 1 at a salary of $15,000, Mr. Dill said, adding that she is also a New Suffolk school alumna.

She has served the county as an accountant in different capacities over 11 years, she said following Tuesday’s meeting.

“She was certainly a good get for the district,” Mr. Dill said.

Changes to the school’s treasurer position were needed following a state comptroller’s audit that found issues in the handling of finances within the district’s budget preparation, sending the district searching for a candidate with a “significant amount of experience in accounting,” Mr. Dill had said following the release of the audit report.

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