District will use restored aid to decrease tax hike

ALBANY’S BUDGET DANCE STAYED TRUE to its time-honored form this year, with the legislature able to play the heroic role of restoring $272 million of the $1.5 billion in state-aid cuts to local school districts proposed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

What individual school districts do with the money, though, is not so predictable. School superintendents this week and last said they were looking at a variety of approaches. Saugerties and Kingston (and maybe New Paltz) are putting the faux-windfalls toward reducing tax-levy hikes, while Onteora (and maybe New Paltz) is using the money to save jobs and programs. Highland remains undecided.

Two things are true across the board — all districts assumed the worst and used the governor’s proposed cuts as a baseline when drawing up their tentative budgets. And all districts are glad that the state, in a departure from the usual recent choreography, adopted its budget prior to the districts having to adopt theirs, taking some of the guesswork out of the process.

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In Saugerties, there was not much debate. The plan is to utilize the extra $392,863 to help reduce the tax levy in a plan Superintendent Seth Turner said is still in the process of being finalized. The governor’s budget, released in February, had included a state aid reduction of over $2 million: from $20 million last year to $17.8 million. So though the cut won’t be as deep, it will still be sizable.

“All of that money benefits the taxpayers,” Turner said, noting that there was no plan to increase spending elsewhere with the sudden bump in aid. “We had already established early on what we expected our expenses to be, and we had controlled for the expenses, but this is revenue which helps the taxpayers. And I anticipate that it’ll get better for the taxpayers before we vote.”

Saugerties’ total state aid package is now expected to come in at $18,242,941, according to the legislature’s figures, including the nearly $400,000 in additional funds approved over Andrew Cuomo’s budget plan. The school is expected to vote on adopting the budget at its meeting scheduled for Wednesday, April 27, though Turner said there was still plenty of work to be done. A budget workshop is scheduled for Tuesday, April 12.

After the application of the extra aid, the district’s current budget draft comes with an anticipated tax levy increase of around 7.3 percent. The spending plan in its current form totals $54,587,941. Turner noted that a contingency budget, set by state law at $53,554,001, would come with a tax levy increase of roughly 6.7 percent. Could the board and school officials whittle their spending plan down so the tax-levy increase is equal to or less than what it would be under austerity? Turner said that was a possibility.

“As far as any final decisions as to what we are going to be doing with our quote-windfall-unquote,” he said, “right now the board is looking at several different scenarios, and they have yet to make up their mind.”

New Paltz and Kingston

New Paltz District Superintendent Maria Rice figures her district will get about $260,000 more aid than was included in the governor’s proposal. (She expected the board to determine what to do with that money at the Wednesday, April 6 meeting, held after this story went to press.)

Currently, the district is looking at a $50.37-million spending plan with an estimated 5.25 percent tax-levy increase.

Rice said there are four options: reduce the tax levy; beef up the fund balance; restore jobs and programs; or split it up among the first three options. She doesn’t usually have many options.

“When they didn’t have an on-time budget, there’s nothing we could do except put [extra state aid] toward the unappropriated fund balance, or the fund balance for next year,” Rice said. “Now we can actually plan better and go to our taxpayers without as many guesses.”

Even though New Paltz will see a 0.11 percent increase in state aid, the district is looking at some serious job cuts — 27.8 positions in all. But Rice said that many district employees and staff, starting with herself, have agreed to give up scheduled raises for next year in an effort to save jobs, and that she hopes the teachers’ union will follow.

Kingston’s school district saw $491,099 in aid restored and will likely apply the funds to lower the tax levy. When the Kingston School Board meets this Wednesday, April 6, trustee Chris Farrell said he expects to see a unanimous push for that option.

The district’s current budget draft was completed on March 31, and with the application of the additional aid lists total estimated revenues at $53,640,296, with total appropriations at $142,511,350. Were the spending plan to move ahead in that incarnation, the local tax levy would increase by roughly 7.1 percent. Farrell stressed that there was still plenty of work to be done before the budget is finished.

“Frankly, 7.1 percent is not an acceptable tax levy,” he said. “We’re trying to bring appropriations back to the previous year.”

Farrell added that he thought the figure for additional aid was an insult.

“To be quite honest, I think it’s a slap in the face,” he said. “They adopt a budget where they’re cutting our revenue stream, yet they’re restoring the millionaire tax cut. To me, it’s an insult. This nearly $500,000 brings down the tax levy by 0.6 percent. We’re still cutting a bunch of positions and we’re still struggling, and this doesn’t really go too far towards that. I’m disappointed in Cuomo, and I’m disappointed in our legislature. I understand the need for cuts, but let’s do it across the board.”

Onteora and Highland

The situation in the Onteora School District is a challenging one for new Superintendent Phyllis Spiegel-McGill. According to the legislature’s figures, the district will suffer the largest percentage drop in its state-aid package, a 13.51 percent cut, or about $1.1 million. Spiegel-McGill calculates it a bit differently, saying that the district was expecting a cut of just over a million dollars and now, with what she said was a restoration of $305,000, will suffer an $854,000 loss in state aid. But falling enrollment allows for cuts that mitigate that shortfall somewhat. The school board is tentatively set to adopt a $50.4-million plan this week.

Spiegel-McGill said the restores $305,000 would be used to save one of the six teacher positions considered for cutting — she said the job spared would be at the elementary level as updated figures showed they would need another teacher there — and cover increases in two costly special-education placements. With that money added into the budget, the 2011-12 plan on the table now represents a 1.04 percent spending increase and an estimated 3.73 percent tax levy increase.

“There was no debate” about what to do with the restored money, Spiegel-McGill said. “The little money that the state has given us is being used to support ongoing programs for children.”

Calculating his district’s net restoration at $237,000 from the Cuomo-proposed cut of $2.4 million, Highland district Business Manager Stephen Perry said this week that the district was looking at a number of scenarios for its approximately $35.2 million 2011-12 budget; one option would raise the tax levy 5 percent, the other, a contingency budget, would raise it 6.8 percent. “We’re going to be having two board meetings — a budget forum and a [regular] board meeting this week,” he said, “and hopefully by the end of the week we’ll have a better idea in which way we’ll be going.”

Additional reporting by Crispin Kott.

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