District voters will see budget with 6.9% tax increase

School Board trustees approved a $53.5 million budget last week by a vote of 7-2. The budget would restore funding for athletics, elementary instrumental music and extra-curricular activities, the most deeply felt cuts last year. Voters will decide the fate of the budget and choose School Board trustees at the polls May 17.

Because of the complicated and variable way a state-mandated “austerity budget” is calculated–the budget that kicks in if local voters nix the budget the School Board puts up—it can sometimes come in at a higher amount. This is one of those cases: the proposed budget is $57,102 less than austerity. Therefore, voters will not be facing the epic decision posed last year, when the difference between the regular budget and austerity was significant and, when the proposed budget went down in flames, austerity kicked in and deep cuts were made.

A more crucial decision was made by the School Board itself, which could have opted to put up a smaller budget with a lower tax hike—or maybe no tax hike at all. That was the opinion of School Board President George Heidcamp and Trustee Steven Haun, who cast the two “nay” votes in the 7-2 split vote at the Tuesday, April 19 meeting.

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“I just think it could be lower,” said Haun, after the meeting.

Heidcamp read from a prepared statement, explaining that although he commends district officials for their work in preparing the budget, he believes that any increase is more than taxpayers can bear at this time.

The proposed budget carries a tax levy of $2,242,232, an increase of 6.9 percent over the current levy. Business manager Allen Olsen explained that approximately 61 percent of the increase can be directly attributed to state aid cuts. The district will receive $1.4 million less in state aid next year – a 6.93 percent decrease.

To arrive at this number, cuts were made. Five teachers will be laid off next year, and one retiring teacher will not be replaced, though one Earth Science teacher will be hired to meet student needs. (School officials declined to give the names of the teachers in question.)

Should voters reject the budget, the board could put a second plan out for a vote, or could vote to adopt an austerity budget, which would cost $53.5 million, and carry a 7.1 percent tax levy increase.

One factor that could influence the future financial picture of the district is the lack of a contract with the STA, the teacher’s union. That contract expired in June of last year. Negotiations broke down a few months ago and have moved to arbitration. The 2011-12 budget as proposed contains no regular salary increase for teachers (though another type of raise, “step” raises, about 2.5 percent per year for qualifying teachers, will continue). If an agreement is reached which includes a regular salary increase, which would be retroactive to June of last year, that could affect the district’s finances. Sources familiar with negotiations have said another sticking point was contributions to health insurance: the School Board wanted teachers to pay 20 percent. Currently, they pay 10 percent.

 

Program restorations

The proposed budget will fund athletic programs, extracurricular clubs and activities, and instrumental music, which were cut from this year’s budget when the board adopted an austerity budget in May. Many of these activities have since been restored through donations, sponsorships, and community fundraising.

At the April 12 board of education meeting, Superintendent Seth Turner said that while fundraising organizations may see a year of reprieve, there are still no guarantees for the 2012-2013 school year.

The proposed budget also contains $65,000 for the salary and benefits for the school resource officer. The officer would continue to be paid by the town of Saugerties, and the school district would then reimburse the town for that cost. Heidcamp said if this amount is lowered or other concessions are made by the town, the money saved could be put to use in other areas, or used to rebuild the district’s fund balance.

One concession that may be made by the town would be allowing the district use of a town-owned backhoe to complete several upcoming maintenance projects. These projects will likely include the replacement of gas lines at the Hildebrandt building and repairing a section of the Riccardi Elementary School parking lot that is sinking. Pending that decision, the board has allotted $60,000 toward the possible purchase of a backhoe.

 

Election time

Four candidates will run for three seats on the school board this year. Incumbents Tom Ham, Steven Haun, and Charles Schirmer will try to retain their seats, challenged by newcomer Robert Thomann. Trustees serve a three-year term, with three trustees up for reelection each year.

The district election and budget vote will be held on Tuesday, May 17. Polls will be open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. at each of the district’s four elementary schools. The election is open to all registered voters residing in the Saugerties Central School District.

The next meeting of the board of education will be a special meeting held on Tuesday, April 26. The meeting will take place in the Saugerties High School media center at 7 p.m. The board will vote to approve the Ulster County BOCES budget.

 

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