Remember taxpayers in making cuts
The Schenectady school board is right at the wall when it comes to finding places to cut its budget without significantly raising taxes.
But before it throws in the towel and goes with the highest tax increase allowed under state law, the board should continue to claw for fat in the spending plan and avoid adding to the overwhelming tax burden already borne by district taxpayers.
The state tax cap would allow the district to increase taxes up to 3.69 percent, or about $80 to $85 on a property assessed at 100,000. But the district would already be pushing taxpayers to the limits even if it sought a more modest tax increase.
In a 2013 survey by the Albany Business Review, Schenectady schools ranked fifth out of 91 regional districts in terms of property tax rate. The owner of a $100,000 home in the district currently pays more than $2,000 in annual property taxes.
Regardless of a STAR tax rebate that would alleviate the hike for many residents, raising more money through taxes still pushes up district spending. Residents need to be careful about letting the district go back to the old free-spending days, because once spending and taxes go up, they rarely go back down.
In demanding the district hold the line on taxes, residents have to remember that the budget isn't made or broken on sixth-grade chorus. Much of the school budget is already locked into previously negotiated employee salaries, benefits, pensions and step pay increases. The time for cutting the real money is at contract negotiation time.
The district has been working diligently to shave every dollar off the budget without cutting into what makes school special. Unfortunately for those who support a full educational menu, what's left to cut includes full-day kindergarten; elementary art, music and librarians; sports; physical education classes; the swimming pool; and middle school technology and home-economics.
Not increasing taxes this year could result in all of those programs being cut. Going up to the tax cap would allow the district to maintain all programs and erase a $1.37 million budget gap.
A compromise is clearly needed.
It's amazing that when popular programs are threatened, district officials scrounge up money and savings they otherwise wouldn't without public pressure.
Following a meeting on Saturday attended by hundreds of citizens, the school board was able to pare the projected deficit significantly. School board President Cathy Lewis, who proposed a 3 percent tax hike, suggested more savings through "behavioral changes." They need to keep digging.
The school board meets tonight to do more work on the budget. The budget hearing is less than a month away, on May 7, and the budget vote is May 20.
Taxpayers should attend the meetings and make sure the board is doing its best to provide the best educational experience, but at a price they can reasonably afford.