Reacting to a Clear Message

In the wake of a stern rejection of the proposed budget by East Islip voters, the Board of Education has begun the process of recalibrating a proposed budget with a clear understanding of taxpayer sentiment in anticipation of the June 19 revote.

“I think it is obvious that East Islip suffered the worst defeat of a proposed budget of any district on Long Island, and perhaps the state,” said Board of Education President Glenn Reed. “The community’s message is crystal clear – we have had enough, don’t bring us a tax levy increase that exceeds the tax cap. By inference this message also tells us to do our best to minimize the impact of the cuts we will have to make.”

The budget not only fell short of the 60 percent supermajority that is required for proposed budgets that exceed the tax cap, it also failed to garner even a simple majority. Only three school districts on Long Island aside from East Islip failed to garner a simple majority: Oysterponds and Tuckahoe, two very small East End elementary school districts, and Center Moriches, which was attempting to exceed its tax cap.

East Islip had 527 fewer “yes” voters than “no” voters, which was the largest negative spread of any district on Long Island. Ten of the 17 districts attempting to exceed the cap were successful. Of the seven that failed, five achieved simple majorities – some of them substantial – but fell short of 60 percent.

Reed noted that the voting process worked as it should have. “We told voters that control was in their hands, because that is what the tax cap legislation provides, and that we were not going to make critical reductions in programs without hearing from the community,” he said. “Their reaction, by all measures, was unequivocal. I don’t think there is anything about the election results left up in the air.”

With clarity on the proposed tax increase no longer an issue, the Board of Education has indicated that it must react in accordance with the wishes of voters. To bring back a revised budget at the tax cap (3.23 percent), the Board must reduce spending by approximately $1.7 million. What that entails is a very difficult process, since roughly 80 percent of the budget supports staff and direct student programs.

“In late January we provided the community with a very detailed description of just how difficult the cuts would be, which is why I believe the Board gave voters the opportunity to vote rather than making the cuts in a unilateral fashion,” said Superintendent of Schools John J. Finello. “But the community was clear in not wanting to support the proposed budget and associated tax levy, thus we will be in the unfortunate position of talking about the scope of staff and program reductions in order to deliver a new proposed budget for consideration.”

Previous discussions on this topic centered on the reduction of seven kindergarten teachers and one teaching assistant in order to transition from a full-day to a half-day kindergarten program; elimination of almost eight music teachers; and elimination of a number of general education teachers to move from a nine-period to eight-period day at the middle school and high school. Total prospective staff reductions could include at least 23 positions. Other potential reductions include the entire athletics program and most extracurricular activities.

“We exist as a school district to provide programs and services to students, so to be in this position is obviously not what we want,” said Finello. “But we must respect the taxpayers of the community by bringing them a proposed budget that they will support.”

In public meetings leading up to the adoption of the proposed budget, community members asked whether employee contracts could be modified in order to avoid staff and program reductions. “As we have recently seen in a number of other districts, substantial changes to employee contracts are being agreed to in order to preserve programs for students and jobs for teachers and other district personnel,” said Reed. “It is obviously the preferred solution, and in general, I would say that it is really the only alternative to the significant reductions we would otherwise have to make. However, we cannot do so at the expense of mortgaging our future.”