A Commack school budget hearing got heated Thursday when several taxpayers argued that the district is not doing enough to cut its contractual costs.
The current proposal is a spending plan of $179,386,921, which is an $8 million increase from last year's budget and carries a 2.91-percent tax levy increase. That tax levy will result in a tax rate increase of between $270 and $280 for the average homeowner in Commack.
The Board of Education made several changes to its preliminary budget, including adding back a guidance counselor and late bus runs after hearing residents’ concerns in three previously held budget workshops. However, some community members argued that if the district were more conservative with what it pays its employees, those cuts wouldn’t have been needed at the start and that overall budget would be more affordable for residents.
Resident Teresa Burke suggested that the board should be more aggressive when negotiating with the teachers union.
“We’re losing librarians, nurses, custodians and mental health professionals…I think that we should try to keep those in versus the other areas we chose not to look at,” she said.
The largest increases in the budget are due to sky rocketing teacher pension costs, which are rising by about 40 percent ($3.5 million) next year, as well as contractual obligations including increased salaries and benefits.
William Marchesi, a Commack resident of 54 years, suggested that the board ask the teachers union for a giveback.
“I don’t know where we’re going with this contract,” he said. “In the private sector you would be out of business next Friday. We’ve got to get a reality here. These people are working hard for their money. And I’m sure the teachers are working hard for their money also. I’m not denying that, but somewhere we got off with the balance. Everybody in this county is working harder for less. The teachers in Commack don’t want to work harder for less. It’s a little crazy.”
Board President Mary Jo Masciello said that while current contracts are still in effect, the board is having discussions with the teachers’ union to ease the tax burden for when the contracts are reopened.
“I want you to understand that we negotiate very aggressively,” she said. “We are prepared to sit down with every contract.”
Another point of contention during the meeting was discussion over $519,000 that the district pays for its attorney fees.
Jim Tampellini suggested that the board put out a request for proposal (RFP) to find a more cost-effective person for the job, as well as hiring an in-house attorney to take care of small legal items.
“How do you know if you’re getting the best possible price if you stay with the same guy for 30 years?” he asked.
Andrew Lauri, an attorney and Commack resident seconded Tampellini’s request for an RFP and asked the board to move toward lowering that cost.
“If you can’t get a 10 percent reduction on a $500,000 estimate, you’re not trying hard enough, respectfully,” he said.
Superintendent Donald James said that the board is considering putting out an RFP for an attorney, and that the district will do an analysis to see about using an in-house attorney for some legal needs.
Lauri also recommended that the district take a second look at other costly items such as Camp Mariah, which is a two-day trip upstate that fifth graders take to Sharpe Reservation in Fishkill.
“You’re giving mixed signals,” Lauri said. “On one hand you’re projecting inflationary costs in a very difficult environment. How in that circumstance can you justify spending that money for Camp Mariah? You came close to laying-off a guidance counselor. Why should it be that close? You’re not finding every cost cut you could do efficiently,” he told the board.
The heated discussion hit a boiling point when Tampellini questioned the board’s decision to pay the superintendent’s secretary $106,500 a year. Superintendent Donald James brought the secretary over from his previous position in Center Moriches, where she was being paid about $91,000.
“How do you justify a secretary making that amount of money in any circumstance?” he asked.
Masciello responded by saying that the secretary’s salary is a cost “savings” since the previous secretary was paid much more. Laughter from some members of the crowd followed.
“I think the cronyism here is being overlooked, Tampellini said. “You find money when you want to find it and that’s the problem with this district. They’re not using the dollars wisely and you’re speaking from both sides of your mouth.”
He suggested that a lower salary for the secretary’s position could have saved at least one of the two nurses being cut.
Board Trustee Joseph Pennacchio explained that while the salary for that individual is high, other district superintendents have more than one secretary, which results in a greater cost. "Yes, the individual may be highly paid, but she's working by herself," he said.
“The double salary would be more, not to mention the benefits. We really believe in the people we hire,” Masciello added.
The district plans to cut four other clerical staff members from the budget.
Another intense topic regarded the board’s use of reserves.
“How can you come and say we’re in a dire financial crisis and you’re not spending the money we give you each year by 3- to 5-percent each year?” Dan Fusco asked.
James explained that the surpluses are built into the budget each year for contingencies, such as additional students moving into the district and other unplanned expenses. He said that surpluses from the prior year are put back into the new budget to lower the tax levy.
When Fusco continued to question the amount of reserves actually spent, Trustee Deborah Guber fired back.
“Did you know the need to be right is a learning disability? You need to listen,” she said as gasps rang out from the crowd.
She later apologized for the remark after another resident pointed out the condescending tone perceived by the statement.
“It was told to us as a board that wanting to be right is a learning disability. Why? Because it means you become closed minded,” Guber explained.
“All we ask that if you come up and ask a question that you give us the opportunity to give the answer to hear what we’re saying. You don’t have to agree with it. Hearing it, understanding it and agreeing with it are three different things and that’s all. It was not meant an offense. I apologize for saying it.”
Masciello also apologized.
“Being condescending is out of order and we do not want to come across that way, but it is difficult to try and help someone understand something and have it be quite clear that it’s not to be believed,” she said.
While residents criticized the board's handling of the district's financing, school officials pointed out that the district received a Moody's rating of Aa2.
"The Aa2 rating reflects the district's sound financial operations with a satisfactory reserve position, its large tax base with above average wealth levels and manageable debt burden," the report states.
A breath of fresh air from the debate came from Commack High School junior Paulette Machuca, who asked the board to reinstate the Granfriends club, an extra-curricular activity in which students visit with residents at the Gurwin Jewish Nursing and Rehabilitation Center.
Machuca said that although she pleaded the board not to cut the program last year, she was one meeting too late, and the board had already adopted the budget. The club was able to continue this year due to donations from Gurwin and the Commack Community Association, however she said it wasn’t made clear if the club would be put back next year.
“Honestly, I love this club. I’ve been in it since freshman year. This club isn’t just for the students. It’s for the senior citizens in this community that expect something from us that we have done for years, and that we really want to do next year, so we were really hoping that it would be put back in the budget,” she said.
The next budget meeting will take place April 18, when the board will officially adopt the spending plan. The meeting will take place at 8 p.m. in the High School.
*This article has been updated.