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School budgets headed to voters

Sunday, May 18, 2014
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— A lower tax cap, a tax freeze and an unexpected boost in state aid all changed the playing field for school budgets proposed across the Capital Region.

At polling places across the region Tuesday, school districts are asking residents to support spending plans that mostly keep programs at current levels and taxes in check. Most budgets raise taxes but stay within the limits of the lowered state cap, which dropped from 2 percent to 1.46 percent with the rate of inflation.

In the Capital Region, the Scotia-Glenville School District is the one exception.

The district’s proposed $50.78 million budget for 2014-15 raises taxes by 1.76 percent, which is higher than the tiny .27 percent cap allowed by the state.

School officials hope the community will support the budget that, for the first time in four years, does not include any program or staff reductions. Because it exceeds the cap, the budget will need a 60 percent supermajority to be passed.

“Everything else is increasing,” said Robert Hanlon, school district spokesman, referring to increases out of the district’s control in health insurance and retirement. “Inflation alone is higher than .27 percent.”

At Schenectady, the school board decided to raise taxes 2.75 percent rather than make drastic cuts to arts and music, library staffing, co-curriculars and athletics.

That’s within the state’s allowed cap for Schenectady and translates to an estimated $60 annual increase for a home assessed at $100,000.

“We have made very significant reductions over the last four years on all fronts, and we would not be asking for a tax levy increase if it was not because of really significant need, and necessary,” said Laurence Spring, superintendent of the Schenectady City School District, which has made cuts affecting more than 400 positions since 2009.

The school district closed a multi-million budget gap with help from $5.8 million in additional state aid. In drafting the $164.3 million budget, it still needed to find $5.8 million through job cuts, increasing class sizes and other efficiencies.

Most school districts across the state, like Schenectady, are keeping any tax increase within the cap, which varies by district based on a number of factors and possible exemptions. Out of 645 school districts, only 24 are proposing budgets that exceed the tax levy cap, according to the state School Boards Association.

The Greater Amsterdam School District lowered taxes in its proposed budget as a result of the tax levy being capped at -3.4 percent. The negative cap was due to an anticipated $1.11 million PILOT payment from Target.

In appealing to the voters in Schenectady, school board members assured them that the increase would be paid back through Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s property tax freeze, which was written into law with the passage of the state budget this year.

Because the district is staying within the cap, homeowners — though not renters — are promised a rebate in the amount of the tax increase.

While some school board members and residents have questioned whether the rebate was a guarantee, Spring said he’s confident the reimbursements will come through.

“I think the state is far enough down that road that they’ve got to do that,” Spring said.

While the average tax levy increase across the state, at 1.98 percent, is the lowest it has been in five years, school districts, on average, are raising taxes closer to the cap, said Michael Borges, executive director of the New York State Association of School Business Officials. The average limit is 2.14 percent.

That could be because the average cap is lower this year, and also because homeowners have been promised a rebate, he said.

“It’s sort of counterintuitive,” he said. “The whole idea was to prevent taxes from going up more than they should, but in some ways, school districts are going up to their levy limits where, in the past, they haven’t.”

School districts continue to rely heavily on reserve funds to balance budgets, but were helped by a $1.1 billion increase in state aid in Cuomo's 2014-2015 budget, he said.

The increase “helped stop the hemorrhaging for school districts,” said Carl Korn, New York State United Teachers spokesman, “but we’re still far short of what’s needed to fully fund schools.”

The tax cap isn’t helping, he said.

“The property tax cap is denying communities local control of their schools and allowing a minority of voters to impose their will upon the majority,” he said.

At Schenectady, the district did not use reserves to balance the budget, since the reserves are already down to about $1 million, Spring said.

School elections

Write-in candidates, the Common Core learning standards and even high school students are changing the face of school board elections this year.

In Duanesburg, at least two write-in candidates are running for two vacant school board spots after no one filed petitions to run. In Schenectady, at least two write-ins are seeking three open seats after only two candidates filed petitions to run.

At Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake, debate over the Common Core, the more rigorous learning standards that have sent state test scores plummeting the past two years, “has been a lightning rod for polarity on the ticket,” said John Blowers, an incumbent who joined the board in 2006.

Six people are seeking three spots on that board.

“The implementation of Common Core had been a disaster and we need to work with all the agencies to fix that,” Blowers said. “The standards themselves, I’m a fan of. Will [Farmer] is not.”

Farmer, who is looking to get back on the board after serving from 2010 to 2013, said the school board should take a position against the new standards because they put too much pressure on students at a younger age.

“To have a whole nation changing to a curriculum where the parents don’t know what it is, is just not right, so the school board should be informing the community on what’s going on,” he said.

The BH-BL race also features a high school senior — 18-year-old Matthew Schultz, who overcame challenges brought on by dyslexia to become an honors student.

Mohonasen High School senior Simon Lange is seeking one of two open seats on that board and has two opponents — a 24-year incumbent, Nancy del Prado, and a Victoria’s Secret district sales manager, Lisa Gaglioti, who is seeking her first term.

 
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