Education

Facing ‘challenging times,’ Mattituck outlines preliminary $42.2M school budget

Mattituck-Cutchogue School District officials proposed a preliminary $42.2 million budget for the 2021-22 school year at last Thursday’s Board of Education meeting.

According to Superintendent Jill Gierasch, the proposed spending plan maintains current programming levels with a few add-ons. Ms. Gierasch said priorities included safety and security, infrastructure upgrades and expansion of some courses, fine arts and club and athletic programs.

“This was a year like no other, I think that goes without saying,” she said as she unveiled key details of the proposal. “But we kept our focus on student and staff needs.”

The district is proposing a 1.42% tax levy increase, which translates to a total levy of $38,028,742 — or $382,892 less than the allowable state-calculated increase cap of 2.44%.’

The $42.4 million proposal represents a 1.93% increase over the current $41.4 budget.

As budget planning begins, Ms. Gierasch cautioned that the board must be mindful of balancing improvements to district operations with the communities’ ability to fund the initiatives. “These are challenging times for everyone,” she said.

The cap on raising property taxes, which dates back to 2012, limits tax levy increases for any given year to either 2% (with certain exceptions) or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower.

As in years past, salaries and employee benefits account for the largest portion of district expenditures at $20.5 million and $11.8 million, respectively. Other categories included in the proposal are instructional and student services, central office, transportation, debt service and fund transfers, and facilities and security.

The superintendent also presented a shortlist of potential projects that could be funded separately using funds from the district’s Capital Reserve.

Voters in 2020 also approved the creation of a repair reserve fund that can be funded up to $750,000 from annual budgetary appropriation or money remaining in the general fund and to be used for repairs and renovations. 

“We hope to be able to continue to fund that with any excess funds again this year,” Ms. Gierasch said.

Capital projects included in Ms. Gierasch’s list of considerations are a renovation of the high school athletic fields, a districtwide solar project, roofing upgrades at Cutchogue East and the high school, creating a STEM wing at the high school, lighting and bathroom upgrades at the elementary school, addressing issues with the current heating system at the junior high and replacing windows and roofing at the Cutchogue West building.

Compared to last year’s budget, funding was cut for many travel and mileage lines in light of the pandemic. An additional $30,000 is proposed to be allocated for internal audits of the district’s finances, which officials said will make the district more efficient.

Technology director Geraldine Doherty explained that the proposed budget focuses on enhancing and maintaining the current technology initiatives, including an emphasis on remote learning capabilities.

Ms. Doherty said the district is “very fortunate” to have been implementing the use of technology over several years across all grade levels. “It really put us in an exceptional position,” she said, when schools shuttered last March and virtual learning began. “We were really able to get a lot of devices into the hands of these kids.”

With no major technology upgrades to fund for the year ahead, Ms. Doherty said she’s planning to continue the initiative to connect K-1 students with iPads and 2-12 students with Chromebooks and provide teachers with professional development for all the new software that’s come into play.

In addition, the proposed budget continues to plan for upgrading student furniture, a walking trail at the elementary school and infrastructure upgrades, Ms. Gierasch said.

Preliminary presentations on the 2021-22 budget can be found on the district website and Ms. Gierasch noted that items may be added or removed as the budget process continues.

Several factors will depend on the state budget adoption expected April 1. “Some of the state aid and those things are a little bit in flux,” Ms. Gierasch said. “While I don’t expect a significant change, we’re hearing that there may be additional stimulus money, or things that may be added.”

The district is also awaiting word on how the budget vote, currently scheduled for May 18, will be conducted. Three Board of Education seats are open this year as the terms of president Barbara Wheaton, vice president Doug Cooper and member Jeffrey Connolly are set to expire in June.

According to Ms. Wheaton, information on petitions to run for a school board seat will be available on the district website; petitions must be filed with the district clerk by April 19.

Ms. Wheaton said the board is also awaiting guidance from the governor’s office regarding any changes to petition signature requirements due to unprecedented voter turnout levels in 2020.