Editorial: OK budgets, reject Riverhead propositions

Carney of Riverhead
FILE PHOTO | Superintendent Nancy Carney and board president Anne Cotten-DeGrasse.
The Riverhead and Shoreham-Wading River 2013-14 school budget proposals that go to voters next Tuesday contain year-to-year tax levy increases that, while above 2 percent, fall below the individualized state-mandated tax increase caps for each of the districts.

Officials in these districts took different approaches to staying under their respective caps.

In Riverhead, the district offered a $20,000 incentive package that led to the retirement of some 20 long-tenured teachers (along with 11 other staffers), saving the district, which can replace them with entry-level educators, about $1 million. This is the first year since the 2009-10 budget — the first crafted after the bottom fell out of the U.S. economy — in which the district hasn’t proposed eliminating several positions through layoffs or attrition. While trimming what was likely a bloated staff was a positive side-effect of the economic downturn, the continued shedding of teachers and support staff risked adversely affecting student performance, and it’s good to see it fi nally halted.

Riverhead’s $117.6 million budget carries a 5.12 percent spending increase over this year and a proposed 3.82 percent tax levy hike over the current year. If approved, the budget will maintain staffing levels and programs.

Ditto in Shoreham-Wading River, where the proposed budget will also preserve classroom and extracurricular programs. This would be accomplished by pulling extra funds, to the tune of $4 million, from the district’s state aid reserves and applying other one-shot revenues amounting to another $1.7 million. Shoreham-Wading River residents will be voting on a $66.1 million budget that carries a 5.5 percent spending increase with a 2.29 percent tax levy bump. The reserves — plus some budgeting adjustments involving planning for federal grant funds — allowed for a tax levy increase proposal much lower than the spending increase.

The Shoreham-Wading River district is borrowing heavily from its reserves for the second year that it’s been forced to operate under a tax cap. The thinking may be that the economy, and thus aid packages, will become more robust as the years progress and the district would have weathered the storm without having to shed staff and programs. These are rainy day funds, after all, and it’s raining, officials could argue. But should the economy remain sluggish —— or worse, contract — Shoreham-Wading River could be forced to make the same tough decisions Riverhead school officials have been making since 2009-10, but at the expense of future students over current students. It’s too early to sound any alarms in Shoreham-Wading River, but moving forward, officials and taxpayers should keep an eye on the state of the district’s reserves.

As for the main factor driving spending increases, districts across Long Island have been slammed in recent years not only with steady staff salary increases but also with huge spikes in pension fund contributions. Under state law, when public worker pension fund investments underperform, it’s up to local districts to make up the difference because the pension’s guaranteed. Contribution rates are calculated using a fi ve-year average of stock performance. The current five-year calculation bracket began in 2008, so recent stock market gains should ease the pain in coming years.

Given the challenges, the area’s two districts are presenting manageable plans that fall within the realm of what’s being offered elsewhere in the state, where the average proposed tax levy increase is 4.6 percent, and county, where the average proposed increase is 3.5 percent.

Voters should approve these budgets, but school officials should take care to keep spending increases below 5 percent moving forward, lest they harm the communities they seek to serve.

The economy is still sluggish, and taxpayers’ salaries are not keeping pace.

Two propositions on the Riverhead School District ballot involve replacing the district’s dilapidated bus barn, which houses the transportation and maintenance departments.

Proposition No. 1 asks to establish a Transportation, Maintenance and Athletic Fields Capital Reserve Fund that can reach $10 million over 10 years. Ballot Proposition No. 2 will ask permission to use part of the proceeds from a farmland preservation sale involving district-owned property on Tuthills Lane to buy two Riverside properties near the proposed site of the new bus facility.

These propositions should both be rejected, mainly because they were just announced in March without school officials actively seeking input from the residents in Riverside and elsewhere.

If the district is looking to replace what it describes as a crumbling bus barn, and expand its athletic fields, it must involve the public in figuring out how to do so.