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Niskayuna school officials hope to learn from budget defeat

Wednesday, May 22, 2013
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— Niskayuna Central School District officials worked Wednesday to learn from Tuesday’s resounding defeat of the district’s proposed budget and incorporate those lessons into the next spending plan.

Officials said foremost on the district’s agenda over the next two weeks is to cut the budget proposal by at least another $560,000, to get the proposal under the state tax cap and hopefully appease some of the voters who turned out Tuesday to defeat the district’s original proposal. More than that, though, officials are examining about 1,000 voter exit surveys to get more precise answers on why residents voted the way they did, hoping to change those “no” votes into “yes” votes.

“The vote is obviously a community decision, and our community has spoken,” Superintendent Susan Kay Salvaggio said Wednesday. “We will take what they said to us very seriously as we move forward.”

The budget defeated Tuesday called for $76.3 million in spending, with a 5.76 percent increase in the tax levy. As the proposal was over the district’s 4.66 percent cap, approval was needed by 60 percent of district voters.

As it stood, the district’s proposal didn’t even make it over the basic hurdle of a simple majority. In all, 3,154 voters, 55.9 percent, were opposed, while 2,484, or 44.1 percent, were in favor.

Niskayuna was one of just two districts in the area asking voters to exceed the tax cap. The other, Niskayuna’s neighbor to the south, South Colonie, managed more than 66 percent support in approving its $92.3 million plan and 4.98 percent levy increase. South Colonie includes the southern part of the town of Niskayuna.

According to the Empire Center for New York State Policy, of 27 school districts statewide that sought to exceed the tax cap, 20 saw their budgets defeated.

Salvaggio declined to suggest specifics cuts to the budget Wednesday. The board’s next meeting is Tuesday. She said she expected to have something for the board to work with then.

A new budget proposal would then have to be approved by the board by June 4, with a new vote June 18. If the board needs another meeting after May 28, they will schedule it then.

“We have to look at everything,” Salvaggio said. “We’ve got to keep our options open.”

If voters reject the latest proposal June 18, a contingency plan would go into place that would require nearly $3 million in cuts, officials said.

In budget discussions earlier this year, the board considered many possible cuts, including closing a school, to eliminate a $6 million gap. Officials have blamed that gap on increased pension costs and decreased state aid.

Board members ended up cutting $2.5 million in spending, using surplus to get the figure down lower.

Several board members Wednesday also tried to get a handle on what happened with the vote Tuesday, and what to do next.

“I’ve been a strong advocate of letting the community speak, and I feel they did just that,” board member Debbie Gordon said. “I feel they were telling us we need to do a better job of controlling our expenditures.”

Gordon was the only one of three incumbents to survive Tuesday’s vote, with challengers Patricia Lanotte and Kevin Laurilliard being elected. Both will start July 1.

Gordon said she was grateful to voters for returning her to the board.

Gordon said she expects the school board will have to go back and reconsider the original list of possible budget cuts.

Board member Barbara Mauro said the message she took from the vote is that the board has to listen more closely to the community. She expects to review the proposed cuts offered earlier. She said there also may be entirely different areas to look at.

“I think the biggest message is that we must listen to the community,” Mauro said.

Board member Robert Winchester said he was anxious to see the exit survey results. As to what could be cut, Winchester said he has some ideas, but said he also wants to hear from others, including the superintendent.

“I am grateful that so many people turned out,” Winchester said. “They gave a clear message that the budget, as it exists, is not acceptable to the public.”

 
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comments

May 22, 2013
8:57 p.m.
edleighton says...

Interesting that the school board members have now seen the light. In all the public hearings leading up to this vote, all I perceived was an ambivalence to comments that the spending was too high. In fact, just a few weeks before the budget was adopted for a vote, a mysterious accounting transfer was found to bring the increase down from 6.7% to the 5.6% not surprisingly the amount that would have passed the 60% threshold according to the informal survey from January. The board is playing games. Start cutting now. We will only carry these enormous budgets into the following years, so start big and save yourselves this embarrassment next year.

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