School Budget: Sparks Fly at Heated Hearing

Residents question salaries and costs during last meeting before spending plan is adopted.

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.

pbug56 April 08, 2013 at 04:18 PM
Hey, I thought his contract required he be the top paid useless super in the state - oh wait, maybe he actually is!!!
BS April 08, 2013 at 04:58 PM
Dont try to be funny Find it Funny. You know exactly why people are forced to wait until their kids are out of school to speak up. The system preys on the fear of reprisals. Everyone is scared their kids will be made to pay for anything they speak about in public, and you of all people should know that being "more involved than we know".
ergodic April 08, 2013 at 05:05 PM
It seems that the Tax Levy should be reduced by an additional $400,000. The 04/04/13 presentation updates the 03/21/13 proposed budget for the approved level of state aid ($159,388 above the previous projection), and allocates this increase to restore certain items; it also indicates that lower interest charges associated with rebonding will provide a savings in debt service charges in 2013-14 of $143,850, and a savings of $800,000 in 2012-13 (which will be applied to "offset the 2013-14 Tax Levy" - refer to pgs 16/47 & 17/47 of the 04/04 presentation). The changes made to the budget and Tax Levy are reflected in the 04/04 charts summarizing expenditures (p 20/47) and revenues (p43/47). The summary of expenditures shows the effect of the allocation of increased state aid and of the 2013-14 reduced debt svc chg. these reuce the budget from $179,482,949 to $179,386,921 - a decrease of $96,028. The summary of revenues includes the $159,388 increase in state aid, and an increase in "Reserves & Fund Balance" from $9,250,000 to $9,650,000 - an increase of $400,000 (not $800,000). The Tax Levy is decreased by $655,416 (from $130,512,134 to $129,856,718). this is consistent with the above nos. (96,028+159,388+400,000). However, since the savings in 2012-13 owing to rebonding was $800,000, the "Reseves ..." should show $10,050,000 and the Tax Levy should be $129,456,718 (an increase of 2.6% over 2012-13).
Will April 08, 2013 at 05:46 PM
HUH? I don't know if you are serious or trying to be as confusing as the board, but you should take the handouts and hold the top left corner with your left hand and the top right with your right. Then in a quick pulling motion rip them into two pieces and dispose of properly. That is unless you can find and point out to me the $5 to 8mil of "contingency surplus" is in this budget, separate from the $25 mil in reserves we have in the bank. I came, I listened to the comments and I believe we are being duped.
Jim Tampellini April 08, 2013 at 07:10 PM
What the District doesn't advertise, and people don't realize, is that the District over budgets about $5.5M each year. For instance, in 2011-12 the District budgeted for expenses totaling $166.3M. However their actual expenditures (plus encumbrances) came in at only $160.6M or $5.7M under budget. This is in addition to the $5.9M currently in the District's "Unreserved Fund" - which is also supposed to be used for unexpected contingencies. In short, the District has nearly $12M built into the budget for contingencies. While it is surely prudent to maintain reserves for unexpected expenses, $12M (or approx. 7% of the budget) seems to be an extreme amount. I am unaware of any other school district that maintains funds for contingencies at such a high level. In my view, some of these funds should be put towards providing more services for the kids, like to restore some of their clubs and class trips, to avoid laying off nurses, guidance counselors or teachers, or to offset the tax levy.
pbug56 April 08, 2013 at 07:19 PM
Jim, well said. BTW, one of the few 'discretionary' expenses I agree with is Camp Mariah, which parents do help pay for. I find the obscene amounts that go into sports, IB and like programs to be a huge waste. But most of the waste is in excessive high end salaries, admin featherbedding and cronyism. Oh and legal.
Will April 08, 2013 at 07:20 PM
How about eliminating the $5mil in fudged numbers and holding the line on a tax increase. Can you imagine going to a BOE meeting and hearing them say "We have taken enough of you money, so much in fact that we don't need any more for next year. Thank you and enjoy the break"
Find it funny April 08, 2013 at 09:36 PM
To all of the above I recall the same people last year on a similar comment section voicing same vitriolic distain for anyone who dare descent. You claim that people do not speak out because their kids will be hurt? By who? That is pure diversion talk. Look my Jim our kids played sports together and graduated together I know you and you know me if you want to create change that's great but don't let these people fight your battles. I asked the questions as to why don't yiu run and why such a fight now. The entire system isn't broken parts of it. The divide you are creating in getting people on the other side of the issue angry. I'm not a clown or a moron and I ave been a resident for twenty four years and my wife her entire life. I have been involved in the town, sports and school board process for a long time. You have been using a scattered buckshot approach. Drop Fusco and tell people to let you speak and maybe if you listen to some of the 4000 people who voted yes last year and also defeated Fusco you would realize what yiu both want is pretty much the same. I never called any of you a clown a shill or anything else set an example and keep he discourse civil.
Pete Moran April 08, 2013 at 10:16 PM
@Funny- I don't see any responses from Mr. T to any of your rhetoric, so why do you keep addressing him? Seems he's obviously ignoring your anonymous moronic comments and not interested in lowering himself to your level. If you really know him, why don't you just talk to him face to face? Instead, you post provacative comments here anonymously like a coward and ask questions that are irrelevant to the issues. We are all still waiting for you to answer my question as to why the answers to any of your questions even matter? Unlike you, I use my my real name, I don't need to hide anonymously behind a fake one. If you'd like to come meet me so I can explain this all to you face to face just let me know when and where..... let's us see which one of us is FOS.
MJS April 08, 2013 at 10:22 PM
Hey Pete M - don't fret this jerk. It's not worth it.. he's got nothing useful to say and just a trouble maker. Probably associated with the district or knows someone who works there..if not himself or his wife... You know the old saying "never argue with an idiot". So Ignore him like everyone else is doing...
Find it funny April 08, 2013 at 10:25 PM
To Peter, I will see you at the meeting and this is the first time I have actually addressed Jim personally so give him time. FYI again did I call you any names and maybe like all those people who are afraid to speak up I'm concerned about retribution. Lol jokes talk all you want I will ask Jim personally at the next board meeting I will ask that and other questions and we will see what he answers are. Be careful what you wish for you lol. I will as I said remain cordial and leave his Nile the next meeting when we can all speak in person. I honestly look forward to it and again please be civil our argument seems less impressive when you stoop to name calling.
BS April 08, 2013 at 11:33 PM
Mr Funny - Since I am leaving this forsaken town and state for a place where you can actually afford to live, I will humor the masses and answer your questions and ask a few of you. Those who identify themselves or speak at the BOE meetings risk possible retribution by administrators who assign teachers by giving their kid the worst ones in the district, by teachers who grade papers and can tank grades arbitrarily, by teachers who coach teams and may never let your kid play. I am not saying all, but pro union nuts who feel their lifelong gravy train is threatened will and have done such. People pass the budget out of fear. The fear that buses, sports, clubs, teachers, aids, nurses will be cut if they vote NO. This has been the MO since the beginning of time. Even when they pass the budget the threats of cuts start anew as you saw this year. It is the give me more, give me more syndrome. Now my questions to you: What parts of the system do YOU consider broken? What is the divide you consider being created and between whom? What do the people here and those who voted yes want that is the same? What exactly are your views? Everyone should just pack up and leave for places more affordable, use your energy to build a successful new community.
Pete Moran April 09, 2013 at 02:15 AM
@Funny - Still waiting for you answer my questions. What's the matter can't figure out a response that won't make you look even more silly? I doubt you'll be at the meeting and if you are you won't have the nerve to reveal yourself as people like you never do.. I really hope you do show, and bring some friends along with you too, this way I can show you and therm how much I "find it funny" after I get through with you.....
Brian April 09, 2013 at 02:39 AM
@Jim - I enjoyed reading your post on unassigned fund balances, but request some clarification. Looking at the Commack's last budget presentation, Commack has an unreserved fund balance of $6,942,000 as of June 2012. However when I looked at Smithtown's budget, they have an unappropriated fund balance of $6,048,000. Although Smithtown is a larger district, the difference does not seem out of proportion for a fiscally prudent community. With Commack having used some its fund balance in 2011 to keep the tax levy increase to 2.6% and 2.96% in 2012, increasing the burn rate of reserves might place our bond rating in jeopardy. We are not talking Apple or Microsoft here that has billions locked away.
ergodic April 09, 2013 at 06:29 AM
@ Will I assume your comment has to do with the validity of any of the numbers used in the budget - because of the (now) common knowledge that a "surplus" is built in. However, it is unlikely that any change in this aspect of budget methodology will be implemented in the 2013-14 budget. Further (simplifying somewhat), there is one budget number that is quite meaningful - regardless of the "surplus"-viz., the Tax Levy.So the missing $400K would seem to be of interest. The 2012 audit (CUFSD web site) provides an example of how the "surplus" can occur. Based on a comparison with actuals (provided in the audit), overstated expenses included General Support(5.7M), Instruction(2.4M),and Debt Svc(0.9M). .lRevenues in the budget included 3.8M of "Reserves & Fund Balance) to balance the budget. The actual revenues (162.1M - sans "reserves") exceeded the actual expenses (160.3M) by 1.8M (the "surplus"). The 3.8M remained in the Reserves and the 1.8M was added to it. Starting the budget process with actual expenses from the previous year should be effective in stopping the buidup of surpluses and reduce the Tax Levy. Any need to replenish Reserves would be transparent. Refer to current articles on the Northport Patch for at length discussions..
Jim Tampellini April 09, 2013 at 12:55 PM
Brian - I agree. However my point concerns the add'l $5.7M for contingencies already built into the budget. The district over budgets by millions of $$ every year, as they underspend on most of the line items budgeted. They have nearly $12M total for contingencies. While it is prudent to do have excess funds set aside in the event of unexpected expenses, I don't understand the need to over budget by that much $$. This seems extreme when they are claiming they need to take clubs, programs, school trips etc away from the children and also let teachers and other employees go, like nurses etc. to save $$. How does that makes sense? They have kids coming to board meetings begging to have their clubs restored (clubs that costs only a few hundred bucks to run) when they have nearly $12M on the side? Why not use $1M of that money for those things and keep $11M on the side instead? What possible contingency could occur that would require the use of all $12M of those funds in one year? Services/programs/clubs etc for the children should be the last things cut and should only occur when there is absolutely no other choice. IMHO, I just don't see how at this time the district has "no other choice" when they have such a large sum of contingency $$ set aside (there's also thousands of dollars misspent on very generous salaries). The district should be using as much of our tax dollars as possible for the benefit of the kids. In my view they are simply not doing a very good job of that.
pbug56 April 09, 2013 at 01:28 PM
What people don't understand about the contingency fund is that it also serves as the district slush fund, a place for the board to park money that they will use for items they don't really want the public to know about, at least ahead of time. Items that are in the budget are a lot harder to protest then ones that they vote on months later with little or no explanation. They also have put money in some budget lines that they intend to spend on other items with a well shielded vote later on. So from their view the budget is kind of sort of a set of guidelines, nothing really rigid. IOTW, if Mr. James, for instance, has another lady friend to hire later on, they'll find money for it somewhere.
Will April 09, 2013 at 01:33 PM
Well now that the cat is out of the bag and a public request was made to the board to halt the practice in order to lower the tax levy on our homes, why can't a change be implemented for the 2013-2014 year? The budget is not adopted for two more weeks wherein changes can still be made to it. I agree with the rest of what you say and you should let the BOE know of your findings. I will look for the the articles on the Northport Patch you refer to, you posting the link would be helpful to me and others.
Jim Tampellini April 09, 2013 at 01:34 PM
FYI, here's an interesting read from the NYS schools finance consortium from a poster on the Smithtown Patch - http://www.statewideonline.org/charts/SSFC_4PointPlanNov2010.pdf
MJS April 09, 2013 at 01:48 PM
I saw this on the NorthPort Patch - Doesn't this also apply to what Commack's BOE is doing? I see little difference... http://northport.patch.com/articles/former-school-audit-committee-members-sound-off-on-2013-budget-process
commack resident April 09, 2013 at 02:32 PM
Wow!! Maybe we should merge with northport? Take thier 30 Million surplus, combine it with ours, buy a string of gas stations and fast food joints and fund our schools that way? :-)
Lisa Levine April 09, 2013 at 03:15 PM
@MJS - it is amazingly similar to Commack. Considering that they are for the most part supposedly well educated people, I really don't understand why these school boards just don't get it. We need to replace them with people who do... vote out these people out and vote in some blue collar workers with common sense.
Retired April 09, 2013 at 03:30 PM
Not for nothing but why isn't the Commack PTA more involved and questioning all of this? Aren't they concerned that the kids are getting short changed or do they just a rubber stamp whatever the district does? People should write them an e-mail and ask - commackPTAcouncil@yahoo.com.
ergodic April 09, 2013 at 04:21 PM
MJS(9:48 am,April 9) has posted the primary link; I'll repeat it: http://northport.patch.com/articles/former-school-audit-committee-members-sound-off-on-2013-budget-process..Also relevant:...../state-aid-restored-to-northport-schools (poster mentions understatement of state aid in the 2011-12 &2012-13 budgets) and ...../northport-boe-to-finalize-budget ( posters complain about built-in surpluses) On a related topic: both Northport & Smithtown have projected a decrease in Assessed Valuation - this results in a tax rate increase jn excess of the Tax Levy rate increase (which Commack should also anticipate).
Brian April 10, 2013 at 01:18 AM
@Jim- Thank you for taking the time to explain. Looking at the District's 2013-14 budget, the growth in reserves seems to be from a $3,200,000 line item listed as "additional efficiencies/economies," under reserves and fund balance slide, not quite sure what is deriving that money. With the unassigned fund balance budgeted to remain constant as listed around $6,500,000 for 2012-13 and 2013-14, my understanding has been that the growth in excess reserves is passed through the following year to minimize the tax levy. If the District kept accumulating unencumbered reserves, I would expect Commack to have a reserve fund the size of a college endowment. Thanks again for your input, I hope the Business Office can provide some reasoning if you have the opportunity to ask at the school board meeting. I appreciate you agreeing that the District does require a sufficient reserve fund to cover unexpected costs such as high needs special education students who could move into Commack during the year at cost over $75K to educate or covering unexpected costs from a hurricane. Determining what that appropriate value is are hopefully financial professionals.
BS April 10, 2013 at 02:15 AM
Brian - Why dont you read the story at the link MJS has posted just below. If the explanations by 3 CPA's doesn't make you get it , just vote yes for the budgets and write a blank check. NYS needs to look into this practice and regulate the amount of budget surpluses, a sneaky way of getting around the tax caps. Or you can just move south.
MJS April 10, 2013 at 02:23 AM
Brian - The unencumbered reserves don't grow that large because the district is only permitted to maintain an unreserved fund of up to 4% of the budget...it doesn't always go to minimize the tax levy..it sometimes also goes to pay interest on the bonds they owe. Imagine borrowing principal and then using the principal to pay interest on the loan...makes no sense.. They also over budget for the expenses on the line items..and do so each year...so that money never goes back to the taxpayers...it just keeps rolling into the next budget. Also, to your points..at $75k each a whole lot of Spec. Ed students would need to move into Commack to even make a dent in the $10M+ in reserves. Just ain't happening. Also, they don't need the reserves for Hurricane damage..they have property insurance to cover things of that nature. Unfortunately, its the Board who determines the amounts to budget for line items and to keep in reserves.... I think under the current circumstances that financial professionals would not agree with the board's current monetary allocations..
ergodic April 10, 2013 at 05:52 PM
Correction to my April 9 (2:29am) post: change General Support overstatement in the 2011-12 budget to 1.85M. The Total Expenditures were overstated by 5.7M - as noted in April 8 post by J.T. - below)
ergodic April 18, 2013 at 09:04 PM
In a previous post, I noted that 400K of a 800K saving (rebonding) in 2012-13 was missing from the 2013-14 tax levy computation. Now I notice a footnote on pg 44 of the 04/04/13 presentation indicating that 400K is included in an allocation of 3.2M to revenue. Since there is already a line item in the list of revenue contributors for the rebonding saving, it seems strange that the 800K would be separated in this way. Unless it is observed that this approach would not require any other changes to the budget; ii does however draw attention to the ambiguous nature of the 3.2M (which is attributed to "Anticipated Efficiencies/PY Recovery" in the 03/21 presentation and to "Additional Economies/Efficiencies" in the 04/04 presentation) - people do read these charts! Since the 3.2M does not come from fund balances/reserves, it seems clear that it is part of an anticipated "surplus". Well, at least some part of the surplus will be used to reduce the tax levy in 2013-14 - though the 400K should be added, not absorbed. It is becoming exceedingly clear that an external audit of the budget ( not only of assets) is not only desirable, but necessary.
ergodic April 19, 2013 at 03:30 PM
Further: the 800K saving due to rebonding had to have remained in "reserves" - since it was not used for debt service. Then, if it is to be used to reduce the tax levy, it has to be included in the allocation of "Reserves & Fund Balance" to 2013-14 revenues. But only 400K is so allocated. This contradicts the statement in the 04/04 presentation that 800K is being used to reduce the Tax Levy. It further confirms that no part of the 3.2M can be considered to be derived from the 800K rebonding saving.


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