The Clarence Central School District is facing difficult choices, including more job cuts, as it copes with a gap estimated as high as $6.4 million in its 2013-2014 budget.
The school district has to strike a balance between protecting its strong academic reputation and “being fiscally responsible with people’s [tax] dollars,” said Superintendent Geoffrey M. Hicks.
“You can’t completely tax your way out of the gap,” he said. “You can’t completely cut your way out of the gap. You can’t completely use fund balance to get yourself out of the gap.”
The superintendent is encouraging public involvement, through letters or emails to the district and board members, and by speaking at public meetings. The next opportunity is 7 p.m. Monday, when the School Board meets in the Middle School, 10150 Greiner Road.
The strategies to close the budget gap will be presented to the public Feb. 25 in the High School. Hicks predicts a large turnout.
“I think the opportunity for people to give us their point of view is definitely there. And if last year is any indication, we will get a large number of people to give us their point of view.”
Clarence is considered one of the premier school districts in New York, a reputation that has helped feed the town’s population growth over the past 20 years.
District residents last year approved a $72.5 million budget that stayed within the property tax levy cap, with 68 percent voting in favor.
This year’s cap is not yet finalized but could be about 3 percent. If the budget exceeds the cap, it would need at least 60 percent voter approval in order to pass.
The district is still collecting some numbers, such as teacher retirements and health care expenses. But Hicks said tough decisions are ahead in a district that he called “very tightly budgeted.”
State and federal aid are diminished, and pension costs are rising. And the district has much less fund balance to draw upon to help keep the tax levy down, after applying about $5 million of it each of the past four years.
Additional job cuts are in the picture.
“We will absolutely have to make reductions in staff for next year,” Hicks said. “It’s just a matter of how much at this point. And we’ve already made over the last two years some pretty serious reductions for a district our size.”
In the past two years, the district has cut the equivalent of 60 positions, including 30 teaching positions.
Another factor is enrollment in kindergarten through 12th grade, which is projected to fall from 4,854 students this year to 4,778 in 2013-2014. In 2017-2018, enrollment is expected to be 4,534, down 6.6 percent from the current figure.
The Clarence district will try to make budget cuts that minimize the impact on students, Hicks said.
The district is already proposing cuts in areas like supplies, equipment and travel/conference expenses.
Class sizes are expected to increase after cuts are made, “but we can’t get to the point where they are unreasonable,” Hicks said.
After Hicks gave an initial budget outlook last month, the Clarence Tax Payers group said one reason for the ongoing financial pressures was “unsustainable growth” in teacher compensation, health benefits, and pensions.
“Last year, Superintendent Hicks and the [School Board] failed to negotiate a teacher contract that adequately addressed this growth, so we find ourselves once again in the same position,” the group said.
Hicks said he felt the district contained costs by more than it would have if the district and teachers union had failed to reach an agreement, based on the “Triborough Amendment” of state law.
“If the argument is, ‘Did the contract try to contain costs that would otherwise have been higher?’ then my answer is, ‘Yes,’ ” he said.