May 17, 2013

District ‘balancing act’

We had a reporter a few years back who spelled out the acronym “ESL” as “English as a Special Language.” This “special language” might be especially reserved for New York State’s school budget votes. In the district’s overall budget proposal, we read: “The proposed school year tax levy, not including levy for permissible exclusions or levy to support library debt, is $103,887,884. School tax levy limit, not including levy for permissible exclusions, is $103,887,966.”

As interpreted by Bedford Central School District’s assistant superintendent Mark Betz, this means that part of the budget is not restricted by the 2 percent tax cap. Thus the actual level of increase in the district is 3.37 percent, since a part of the tax levy is allowed to be excluded from the 2 percent tax cap mandated by the state. These can include such items as capital debt — principal and interest on mortgages, and construction costs — and are removed from the calculations.

The total budgeted amount, not including separate propositions, in Bedford Central for 2013-14 is $125,057,000. It keeps all but one academic program — the ACES high school in Bedford Hills — and cuts nearly 20 staffing positions. With the capital debt exemptions, the $125,057,000 budget stayed under the tax levy cap and is up 1.92 percent from the current 2012-13 budget.

Reasons for the budget increase come from a $2.8 million increase in state-mandated pension contribution costs, an additional $130,000 in transportation costs, $2.3 million worth of salary increases and a health insurance bump up of $500,000.

Without cuts, the budget would have been far higher. The board of education allocated approximately $3,550,000 from the district’s fund balance and reserves, and the administration identified program and staffing modifications and cuts of approximately $2.9 million.

Because of differences in assessment values, the budget increases will hit Bedford and Pound Ridge differently, with Bedford’s tax rate rising 4.56 percent and that of Pound Ridge increasing a slightly more moderate 3.07 percent.

Last week we talked about the “structural deficiencies” that have led so many administrators and officials to call our school budgets unsustainable. Bedford Central’s predicament — rising costs, mandated expenses, a state tax cap and overburdened property owners — is leading to the potential unraveling of the district’s programs and services. Once the reserves are gone and as pensions and benefits continue to rise — as they must — the district will face greater hardships.

The small print on the school district budget notice projects where we may be headed. If this budget is voted down, it says, “a contingent budget would require $3,639,960 of reductions to the general fund budget. This would necessitate elimination of ... $40,000 for community use of facilities, $269,843 in instructional and operational equipment; $40,000 for certain managerial/confidential employee salary increases; $50,000 for infrastructure technology equipment leases; $58,000 for technology maintenance contracts and $250,000 for capital projects. In addition, reductions of $2,562,117 in other program cuts and $370,000 in administrative expenses would have to be made to meet the contingent caps.” In other words, everybody suffers.

Among the cuts detailed in this list, said assistant superintendent for business Mark Betz at last Wednesday’s meeting, would be safety improvements at Fox Lane Middle School and septic upgrades at Bedford Village and West Patent elementary schools. These are not areas in which you want to cut corners. Right now these potential reductions are just numbers, but once parents, kids and staff realize how this could impact their daily educational experience, they become all too real. The resistance to academic, arts and athletic cuts throughout the budget process shows the determination of Bedford Central residents to maintain the highest quality education available.

The district did well to solicit input from many sources, including district critics. Communications efforts extended to informational programs at each of the elementary schools; mail and phone-in surveys; and parent advocacy groups. The budget process included not only the board of education and administration, but from parents, students and community members.

This kind of outreach pays off in good will and support from the community. When cuts are announced, the public has an opportunity to respond. Dr. Hochman’s mantra has been, “If you don’t want to cut here, where do you propose to cut?”

The board’s and administration’s persistence helped the district to reinstate a student assistance counselor, a TV technician’s job and a music teacher as well as restore funding for modified sports. Four out of the five elementary school librarians and additional teaching positions were initially projected to be cut, along with modifications to music scheduling, elimination of some modified athletic teams, middle and high school clubs and other reductions. These could be at risk if further cuts are required as a result of a no vote at the polls.

It is shocking to realize that with a budget of $125 million, the district still needed to eliminate 20 staff positions and close down ACES high school. And it is dispiriting to know that a larger and larger portion of the pie must now be drawn from charitable contributions. Luckily for the students of Fox Lane’s schools, athletics and musical boosters have stepped up to fill gaps.

If the budget gets voted down on May 21, the board can make a few modifications to the budget before the second vote. But it's not mandatory; they have the choice as to whether they want to make changes or not. It could be the exact same budget. If the May 21 vote is defeated, a second vote will take place June 18. If the budget is voted down again on June 18, then it will go to the contingency budget. Like sequestration in Washington, it may be appealing to vote no, shut our eyes and brace for the pain. That won’t solve our problems. We need to support the administration in their endeavor to provide a sensible and sustainable budget that puts our kids first. They are doing so in the face of increasing odds.

Read more local coverage of your hometown in this week’s issue of the The Record-Review. Newsstand copies are available at several locations listed above, or subscribe today for convenient home delivery.

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