May 31, 2013

Bedford Central: The calm before the calm

It was a good month for the Bedford Central School District. On Tuesday, May 21, the community passed its $125 million budget for the 2013-14 academic year. Of the 2,189 residents who voted, 1,568 of them supported the budget — nearly 72 percent of the votes.

Seventy-two percent, that means that seven out of 10 people in the district respect the quality of education in the community and are willing to pay their hard-earned cash for it. Pretty impressive.

The administration made the right decision. Overriding the cap is an uncommonly difficult burden for districts; a 60 percent vote is required to move beyond the 2 percent cap. Only a third of districts throughout the state proposing to override the tax cap proved successful. It was risky, and even academic stalwarts like the Scarsdale and Briarcliff districts failed to convince voters that overriding the cap was necessary.

Dr. Hochman said after the vote “there was no reason” to request a tax-cap override. Prior to the election, assistant superintendent for business Mark Betz explained part of the reason that the district could afford to be a little more relaxed. The recent stock rallies have buoyed up pension funds, he said, which takes the burden off of districts to pay the difference when the market is bearish or flat.

Moving forward, the district must maintain the full-court press to keep costs down. On the Friday after the election Dr. Hochman said that the district had made inroads in its negotiations with the teachers and he was optimistic approaching teacher contract talks. He said that stakeholders — teachers, union officials and the administration — had met to share ideas as to what were primary goals of the budget negotiations. He said the atmosphere was constructive and that he expected it would set the tone for salary talks. Dr. Hochman said that teachers recognized constraints and were cognizant of the public’s concerns. He said he plans to “cut the trajectory of salaries, the biggest component of the budget.”

With almost 20 staff positions cut this year, including 10 at the high school, teachers recognize that the district means business. The contracting of the district’s transportation department last year was another signal that new rules apply.

Unfunded state mandates are the biggest blocks that lie ahead. In this year’s budget, pension plan hikes alone resulted in a $2.8 million budget increase. Local districts are paying the brunt for teacher evaluations and student testing, which administrators say divert resources, eliminate learning opportunities and, worse, fail to truly measure student achievement. Other state add-ons include special education transportation costs. At one point not long ago, districts were reimbursed up to 70 percent for these costs; now they receive next to nothing, despite the fact that the district is required to transport any student from home to a school within 15 miles.

To achieve greater cost efficiencies, Dr. Hochman said that booster clubs and parent volunteers would be playing a larger role in providing arts, sports and extracurricular activities. He is looking into more shared services with the community, particularly in the area of after-school activities like the Boys & Girls Club, and outside involvement of local broadcasters for meetings and events.

He said he did not anticipate needing to ask voters to override the state’s cap in upcoming school budget elections. However, with an increase in costs or unfunded mandates, there might come a day when “we would need to see an infusion,” Dr. Hochman said.

No matter the state of Wall Street, Bedford Central is wise to do all it can to keep its budgets under tight control. It doesn’t want to end up like those districts that dared try to override the cap.

This week, Dr. Hochman was even confident that a bond vote, scheduled for October, would find favor with voters. The $30 million plan will provide building repairs at West Patent and at the science lab in the middle school. With the plan scaled back from an untenable $75 million, he anticipates a positive response.

“We’re in a sustainable place if nothing changes dramatically,” he said. “Things are steady. We’re pretty much on an even keel.”

Even so, it’s wise to remember that to meet the cap, the district was forced to cut $3 million from the budget. Almost 20 staff were let go and the ACES school, a lifesaver for kids since its inception, is now closed. Global warming moves faster than change in Albany, so it’s unlikely that unfunded state mandates will shrink any time soon. And “optimism” is a word that can easily vanish in the midst of tough employee contract negotiations.

The thing that’s inspiring about Dr. Hochman is his calm demeanor. If he’s not too worried, we don’t need to be. Do we?

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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