In Akron, three high-ranking administrators split their time – and their salaries – with nearby districts.
In Ken-Ton, an elementary school will close next year in what’s likely to be the first of a series of school consolidations there.
And the West Seneca schools have pulled millions of dollars out of their reserve fund over the years to supplement state aid and property tax revenues in the budget.
In this second year under the state’s tax cap, some schools may add another strategy: ask voters to approve budgets with the maximum tax increase allowed under the cap.
Only about half the local districts did so last year. Most asked for less of a tax increase than they were allowed under the cap.
“If a school is going to maintain itself, it has to get that tax cap money,” said Rick Timbs, who runs the Statewide School Finance Consortium.
Last year, a dozen of the 27 suburban school districts in Erie County proposed budgets that included tax levy increases that were lower than those allowed under the tax cap. Half of the 10 school districts in Niagara County did so.
Only two districts in Erie and Niagara counties – Holland and Niagara Wheatfield – proposed tax levies that exceeded their tax caps.
When Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo unveils his state budget proposal later this month, local school officials expect to hear him announce plans for a state aid increase of about 3.5 percent, slightly smaller than this year’s increase.
School officials tend to frame that as a cut, even though that would actually equate to more money for schools than they got this year.
At an informational session Saturday, dozens of school board members and several school officials got some financial advice from Timbs, a former Erie 2 BOCES superintendent.
He urged local districts to set their levies as high as possible under the cap.
“Schools have to shoot for their maximum tax cap,” he said. “The problem is that costs are escalating at a faster pace than the state’s willingness to increase resources.”
Plenty of board members and school officials vowed to lobby state legislators and the governor’s office to increase aid to schools. It may be popular to take a hard line on school spending, but eventually, the tides will turn, some said.
“I’m not just going to accept the fact that I can’t change Cuomo,” said Bob Dana, vice president of the Ken-Ton School Board. “He can’t do it without the votes. I would think somewhere along the way, he’s got to change.”
At the moment, though, in the absence of a larger increase in state aid, schools must either look for ways to spend less or generate more revenue either by raising property taxes or dipping into their fund balance.
Last year – the first year that schools proposed budgets under the state’s tax cap – many school districts submitted budgets that included tax levies that fell below the amount they could have collected under the cap, he told them. (Although it’s referred to as the 2 percent tax cap, a variety of exemptions are factored in, and the actual size of the cap varies significantly from one district to another.)
“People did not collect $112.9 million they were entitled to under the tax cap, mostly because they were afraid,” Timbs told school board members at Saturday’s session, which was sponsored by the Erie County Association of School Boards and underwritten by Turner Construction and Harris Beach.
In some districts, school officials say they have been drawing from their fund balances in recent years to avoid major cuts in programs. But now, their fund balances are running low.
West Seneca has cut positions through attrition, one board member said, but has relied heavily on its fund balance to stave off major cuts.
“We were $7 million short in state aid last year, and we made it up in fund balance,” said Jan Dalbo, a longtime West Seneca School Board member. “We were hoping the state aid picture would improve, and it hasn’t.”
Now, the district has $500,000 left in its fund balance, she said.
West Seneca has offered a $35,000 retirement incentive in the hopes of realizing more savings. The response has been good, Dalbo said. It remains to be seen exactly how much of a savings it will yield.
The Akron schools have cut about 20 teaching positions in the past three years, according to David Penn, a School Board member there.
“I’m just fired up – frustrated and irritated, because I’m in a district that has cut over the past three years,” Penn said. “We’ve cut so many things. We’ve gutted staff. I have a son in first grade and another 10 months old. What’s going to be left for them?”
His district now shares three administrative positions with other districts: the business administrator is shared with Oakfield-Alabama, and the buildings and grounds director and transportation director are shared with Clarence.
“Those things, they save among them maybe $150,000, which when it comes right down to it, is a drop in the bucket,” Penn said.
Ken-Ton, one of the region’s largest school districts, has taken cost-cutting steps in the past few years that it might not have taken had it been getting more state aid, Superintendent Mark Mondanaro said.
For instance, voters last year approved a measure that requires more students to walk to school in an effort to save money on transportation. It passed overwhelmingly.
“People would not have voted 3-to-1 five years ago to extend the mileage (limits),” he said. “And would we normally be having a school consolidation conversation if this fiscal crisis hadn’t happened? Perhaps not. So there are some good things that have happened.”