Significant losses in state aid are forcing many local school districts to make tough decisions as they struggle to keep tax levies down.
The pain is being felt at varying levels as some districts have benefitted from productive communication with their employees about appropriate salary and benefit increases, while others have opted to lay off numerous staff in an effort to cut costs.
Lake Placid Central School District is one case where teacher concessions limited the elimination of instructional staff.
There, the tax levy will rise 3.45 percent to help pay for $13,302,888 of a budget totalling just over $16 million, a 1.54 percent increase. The rate per thousand is expected to increase from $5.75 to $5.94.
"The administration, school board, and employee union worked together to make some changes in contractual language, which helped us to keep the tax levy down," said interim superintendent Ernie Witkowski.
The concessions come in tandem with the elimination of 14 positions, the majority of them being retiring instructional staff. One administrative position was cut, as well as two CSEA-member staff.
"We offered a retirement benefit package to many of our employees," Witkowski explained, "and many of them took it."
The cuts will help offset the loss of about $200,000 in state aid as well as the continually rising costs of employee wages and benefits, materials, fuel, and other operating expenses.
"We still believe that we can maintain a high quality of education for our students," Witkowski said.
Though enrollment numbers for next year have yet to be finalized, Witkowski said they are expected to decline from the current number of 714 to about 700.
Two public hearings are scheduled for the proposed budget: May 4 at the Wilmington Town Hall and May 11 at the Lake Placid Middle/High School Administrative Service Building. Both begin at 7 p.m.
Voting on the budget will take place May 18 from 2-9 p.m. with polling places at the Wilmington Town Hall and Lake Placid Elementary School.
Concessions by faculty and staff played a big role in the Saranac Lake Central School District as well. There, the tax levy will rise 2.95 percent to $17,944,584 under the proposed 2010-2011 budget. Overall expenditures are set to increase $283,879 to a little more than $27 million, a 1.06 percent rise.
"We did have some salary concessions from union membership recently that helped us get down to that tax levy," said the school's assistant superintendent for business, Dan Bower.
Teachers and administrators belonging to unions agreed to give up more than half of their planned 3.95 percent raises for the coming year, settling instead for a 1.95 percent raise. The result is a $280,000 savings for the district, Bower said. No changes to agreements with CSEA employees have taken place, however.
Bower said the tax levy increase was primarily a result of the reduction in state aid, a $805,000 hit to the district. While the district has kept its levy at a zero increase the past two years, he added, the loss of that aid caused the need for some increase.
Still, the district is proud that it was able to limit that increase, Bower said, "and still offer the same level of education to the students."
A public hearing on the budget is scheduled for May 11, 7 p.m. in the Petrova School Library. Polls will be open 7 a.m. until 8 p.m. May 18 in the high school auditorium.
Elizabethtown-Lewis Central School District, for better or worse, is the only district in the region proposing a budget that aims for a zero-percent increase in the tax levy.
As it stands, the district is set to lose $391,338 in state aid. The proposed 2010-2011 budget would at least partially counteract that with a $95,032 decrease in expenditures from last year's $7.6 million budget, a 1.25 percent decrease.
The tax levy will remain level at $3,128,903, preventing any increase to the current tax rate of $12.28 per thousand, which is $1.60 higher for district residents in the town of Chesterfield.
"There is no change to our tax levy because the Board of Education understands the critical nature of our current economy," said superintendent Gail Else. "We continue to offer a quality, effective educational program for our students and cost efficiencies for our tax payers."
To contain costs, the proposed budget includes reducing one foreign language teacher position to half-time. Salaries and wages for most administrative and support staff are frozen at their current levels.
"Due to smaller elementary enrollment, we are reducing four elementary teacher positions, resulting in an average class size of 19 students for next year," said Else.
A public hearing on the proposed budget is scheduled for Tuesday, May 11, 7:30 p.m. in the school conference room. Polls will be open May 18 from noon to 8 p.m.
Willsboro Central School is another district where there will be relatively marginal changes to the tax levy. The district's proposed overall budget of $7.93 million is $38,611 less than last year, offsetting part of an approximate $130,000 loss in state aid.
The result is a tax levy of nearly $4.8 million, up $85,682 from last year. That equates to a projected 21 cent rise in the rate per thousand to $11.06.
"Reduction in State Aid is the major factor in this year's tax levy," said superintendent Steve Broadwell. "We will be using money from our reserves to offset the decrease in State aid."
In addition, the school will be cutting positions for two elementary teachers and one teaching assistant.
"Our budget committee and our Board of Education continue to work diligently to balance the needs of the school district with the financial concerns of the local taxpayers," Broadwell added. "This budget maintains our programs and is reflective of the economic times by reducing the overall spending plan for the district."
Voting for Willsboro's proposed budget is Tuesday, May 18, with polls open from noon to 8 p.m.
One of the districts hit hardest by cuts to state funding is Tupper Lake Central School; so hard, in fact, that the school is contemplating the elimination of about 30 positions.
As it stands, the school's state funding is set to decrease roughly $1 million next school year, about 6.8 percent of the school's total budget.
"Generally, over the past several years, state aid represents about 55 percent of our overall budget [revenue]," said Superintendent Seth McGowan. "This year it represents only about 48 percent. It's for that reason the tax levy is projected to be higher than we want it to be."
The proposed budget for 2010-2011 includes a $221,246 rise in expenditures, about 1.37 percent, to a total of $16,418,825.
The projected tax levy has yet to be determined, McGowan said, because, with the state budget still unfinalized, the school does not know just how much revenue to expect in the coming year. Still, he gave a conservative estimate of a $623,000 increase in the levy to more than $6.9 million, a 9.91 percent rise.
"If more appropriate state aid is to be included in our budget, we would expect that to come down," said McGowan.
Most lines in the budget have been either been kept flat or decreased, McGowan said. The increases have come in employee salaries and benefits, as well as operating costs such as fuel and electricity.
"When we started this process, we were looking at a 35 percent tax levy increase," McGowan said. "To get it under 10 percent, I think, is monumental."
To reduce costs, the proposed budget includes the elimination of about 30 positions, most of them instructional. As a result, class sizes are expected to increase in the elementary school, and several elective courses are expected to be removed at the high school.
Out of the 30 positions, only four are being eliminated through attrition: two each in the elementary school and high school.
"All said and done, it's about 25 percent of our instructional staff," McGowan said. "We're going to be limited in the number of courses we can offer."
Roughly seven percent of funds will be cut for the school's athletic programs. McGowan said he would be meeting with administrative staff in the coming weeks to determine which few elective courses and programs the school should keep.
"We will try to maintain the electives which have had high number of students enrolled in them," he said.
Despite the staggering cuts to staffing, McGowan said one of the positive aspects of the budget process has been the strong communication between teachers and administration.
"They've expressed a lot of support," he said, "not for the decisions that are being made, but the way in which decisions are being made."
Information regarding school budgets in Westport, Keene, and AuSable Valley school districts were featured in the April 24 edition of The Valley News.