Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Anatomy of a Dissenting Vote

Tonight, there will be a public hearing on the budget for Southampton School District, a budget that proposes a 1.9 million dollar (or 3.45%) increase over last year's budget. When the proposed budget was sent to a Board of Education vote on April 20, all members of the board approved except one: Dr. Laura McMahon.

The Hamptonyte Blog reached out to Dr. McMahon to clarify her dissent. Here's the gist of what she said (in italics).

"My intention is not to tell people to vote no for the budget, but rather to pay attention, ask the right questions and cast a vote that is reflective of an informed decision. I do believe the operating budget could be 0% and not adversely effect our students or staff. In my opinion, if people are not outraged, then they are not paying attention."

Now most LI school districts, in this blogger's experience, operate at or over budget year in and year out. But apparently this is not the case at Southampton, where for at least the last three years running, the school has posted budget surpluses at the end of the fiscal year. By law, the district is allowed to keep 4% of the overall budget in reserves. Dr. McMahon explains what happened at workshops while sitting down to discuss this upcoming budget.

"When the meeting began we were asked what would we be comfortable with 2% or 3%? I then asked, why not a 0% operating budget? I then asked, as of June 30, 2010 how much money did our district spend? The answer...there is about $3million dollars left. I then said...in this climate, with the current economy, why not, just for one year, put a little less money in our reserves and make some further cuts? I did not get a straight clear cut answer."

What "further cuts" would she make?

"If you look at the history here, we consistently over-budget. We are also over-staffed. Look at the size of our district, and the amount of staff, and compare it to another district the same size. There is also a history here in Southampton of retaining ineffective staff, then adding more staff to compensate for that."

But there was a reduction in staff.

"A few personnel positions were cut after that first meeting I attended. The bottom line is, they needed to be cut anyway, regardless of the budget, so I feel that is misleading to the public. I believe we could still cut more staff and not adversely effect our kids or our current staff. I also voiced publically, that we have too many committees and often times the committees are loaded. For example, the BAC (Budget Advisory Committee, ed. note) is mainly comprised of people who either work for the district or have a spouse that is employed by the district. That representation was about 70% of the committee. That is not a true representation of the public."

Dr. McMahon also took exception to the way the budget numbers were brought to them in the first place.

"In my opinion, I would rather the Super come to the BOE with a few different proposals. For example this is what 0%, 1%, 2%, 3% budget would look like and show me the impact of such. That was not done."

And of course, similar to the reader comments often seen beneath stories about any school budget, teacher and administrator salaries occupy a large portion of the budget and are perceived as excessive.

"The public needs to be aware of contracts, they are negotiable, and that is the area where thousands and thousands of dollars can be saved. Salaries make up about 70% of our school budget. Contracts that have been ratified by the BOE are public information and can be viewed by the public by filling out a FOIL request with the district clerk. Anyway, people need to be aware of the public monies spent on healthcare, cash out of sick days upon retirement, stipends, etc. and how that directly impacts the taxpayer as well as our children."

Wouldn't cutting staff and renegotiating contracts necessarily impact extracurricular opportunities for students?

"We don't need to cut sports, music, or programs for the kids. We do need to have strong leadership. We have the ability to be forward, progressive thinkers, and to make Southampton a place that provides an excellent education for all, while at the same time being fiscally responsible to our taxpayers. In order for that to happen, first...people have to believe it is possible, I do believe that. If you look at the amount of money we spend per pupil, the amount of staff we have, the amount of students we have...our students should be doing phenomenally. They are not. Look at our graduation rate, compared to other schools on LI(not NY state), (It's lower) look at test scores (they're lower) ( I don't personally look at those because I do not think they are reflective of what students know or how they learn) but many people look at them, look at the grad rate for our minority students compared to other districts on LI. (It's lower) Something is really out of whack here. In my opinion, we have some awesome teachers and administrators, but we also have some ineffective staff and administrators. Just speak with community members, they know."

Dr. McMahon went on further to discuss the salary structure for teachers, and the powerful teacher's union that prevents, among other things, an evaluation of how teachers and administrators are performing.

She didn't say as much, but it seems her dissent is a symbolic one, in that she's not seeking to defeat the budget, but would like taxpayers and policymakers alike to turn a more critical eye to the budget process. Even with the fairly intricate list of issues, she probably has most readers at hello. The 3-million dollar surplus to be expected after this fiscal year ends in June. If the district is operating at a continual surplus, why raise the tax levy at all, even if it is only $1.66 per month for a house that's worth $1-million.

If there's something not being taken into account, feel free to e-mail the Hamptonyte Blog at news5525@gmail.com. And don't forget to show up at tonight's public hearing at 7:30 p.m. in the New Music Addition at Southampton Intermediate School.

According to the school's site, "the budget hearing will feature informative slides, but more importantly, an opportunity for questions and answers to and from school board members and school administrators. Babysitting will be provided."

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