The sour economy and actions in Albany are making it painful for officials to create the 2012/13 school budget. At a meeting of the Sullivan West Central School District (SWCSD) Board of Education on April 5, superintendent Dr. Ken Hilton presented the proposed budget.
Hilton said one of the biggest challenges is making up for the $2 million drop in funding the district receives from state aid compared to 2009/10. State aid now makes up 40% of the total; in 2009/10 that figure was 47%.
Hilton also railed against the 2% property tax cap mandated by Albany, which, because of the intricacies of the law, actually translates to a 1.67% cap in SWCSD. Hilton said the tax is regressive and hurts poor districts more than rich ones. He compared SWCSD to a hypothetical one he named Fancy-Pants (FPCSD) that might be located in Westchester County. He said a 1.67% increase in the SWCSD tax levy is equal to about .08% of the budget, while a 1.67% increase at FPCSD would be equal to about 1.6% of that budget, giving the wealthier district the ability to raise a higher percentage of funds while remaining within the tax cap.
Hilton stressed most heavily the fact that the tax cap would gradually eat into the district’s ability to fulfill its core mission of educating students. Many costs are rising at a rate much higher than 1.67%. Health care costs, for instance, are rising 8% this year, and a family policy for a district employee together with dental coverage will now cost about $22,200 per year.
Hilton said the combined costs of retirement programs, Social Security payments and health benefits ate up 16% of the budget in 2006/07 and for 2012/13 those costs will eat up about 21% of the budget. As these costs continue to rise at rates above 1.67%, there will be less money available for programs and other educational essentials.
Board member Angela Daly also spoke out against the impacts of the 1.67% property tax cap, saying the public didn’t understand its ramifications, and that she was particularly concerned that lawmakers in Albany had passed the cap without granting the promised mandate relief that would allow districts to remain within the cap without imposing sharp cuts.
To keep the budget within the cap this year, Hilton and Lorraine Poston of the business administration office recommended a couple of cost-saving measures, including doing away with all but essential field trips. This would save $38,000 and bring in the field trips cost to about $7,000. Some members of the board, however, were reluctant to cut the trips so deeply. Board member John Regerro said for some students the field trips represent their only exposure to the arts.
It was noted that Poston had boosted her estimation of the cost of diesel fuel for the coming year from $4.80 a gallon to $5. Board member Daley said that every dime in cost increase represented about $17,000 in cost to the district, and if the estimated cost were reduced to be $4.90, then $17,000 could be added to the field trip budget. The consensus of the board was to change the estimated cost of diesel.
In another cost-saving move, Hilton recommended eliminating 5.1 full-time equivalent positions, about half of them through retirement or re-assignment. The involuntary lay-offs would include a part-time certified librarian for the elementary school, who would be replaced by a teaching assistant, which would allow the library to remain open for the entire school day. Several teachers said that this seemed unfair in light of the fact that no one from any of the sports programs were being cut.
On a separate matter, Hilton noted that even with the proposed cuts, class sizes would remain the same or in some cases be a bit smaller than this year, due to the declining student population. He also noted there were no cuts programs related to art, music, drama, college credits and special education.