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Bridging The Budget Gap

As the deadline for next year’s budget draws nearer, the Oyster Bay-East Norwich school board discussed using this year’s projected fund balance to bridge a $385,000 revenue gap.

Though all the board members at the March 19 meeting at the Oyster Bay High School Library seemed supportive of using some of the fund balance, one area of discussion was how much to use and whether the board should ask for more or less from voters when the proposed budget is placed on the ballot for voter approval May 21. ‘

At the last few meetings, the board and school officials have considered how to bridge an anticipated $937,515 revenue gap in next year’s school budget.  Under state law, the district can seek only a 3.06 increase from voters in the tax levy. At the March 12 meeting, Phyllis Harrington, superintendent of schools for the Oyster Bay-East Norwich Central School District, outlined spending reductions based on enrollment to reduce the budget gap to $385,000.

At the March 19 meeting, Christopher Van Cott, assistant superintendent for finance and operations, and Harrington, explained how the projected fund balance from the current budget could help fill the remainder of the gap. The estimated fund balance is between $3 million and $3.4 million.

The fund balance, Harrington said, represents money budgeted for this school year that was not spent and unanticipated revenues.

Using $300,000 of that balance, Harrington explained, would eliminate all but $85,000 of the gap. For that remainder, she said, the district is counting on an expected restoration in state aid for “high tax” districts that are heavily residential and lacking in large commercial property taxpayers.  

Once Harrington finished her presentation, board member Robin Dando, noted that “I’m pleasantly surprised” that the proposed budget will stay within the limit of state law but still maintain programs for students. Some audience members broke out in applause.

Two school board members, Steven Zbodula and Dr. Michael Castellano, wondered if more could be taken from the fund balance in order to reduce the burden on the taxpayers and whether further cuts could be made. Van Cott said that using too much of the fund balance could create problems in the future.

Castellano raised the possibility of reducing personnel costs, such as the number of teachers or the salaries. “If there was more money available,” he said, there would be a push for higher salaries.

Harrington emphasized that that the proposed budget was planned to ensure that programs were not cut.

“I’m not talking about cutting programs,” Castellano replied, but rather staff.

“Our primary obligation is to educate our children, not to provide tax relief,” Harrington said.

James Robinson, another board member, commented that in past years as the board has faced budget difficulties and considered or made cuts, “there was an outcry from the community.”

“This is not a short run. This is a marathon,” Robinson said of the budget situation. “This year was more difficult than last year,” and the next few years will be worse.

“We are in a serious dilemma,” Robinson said, brought about in part by cuts in state aid. “They don’t give Long Island a fair share.”  He noted that some school districts “are on the brink of fiscal insolvency.”

“The whole system is broken,” Robinson said, drawing some applause from the audience.

Harrington said that the board would further consider the budget at the next meeting April 2. Adoption of the final budget would be April 16 followed by a public budget hearing May 7 and the budget vote and trustees’ election May 21.