Budgeting in school districts this time of year has become as predictable as rain in April.
And along with rising creeks and rivers, taxes also are rising, far outpacing inflation.
Among several districts that already have wrapped up their budget proposals or expect to soon:
• Clarence taxpayers are looking at a 9.8 percent increase in the amount of money raised through taxes.
• The Williamsville budget includes a 3.89 percent increase in tax revenue – the largest increase in eight years.
• In Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda, the tax revenue would increase 4.66 percent.
• In Hamburg, the budget proposal increases taxes 5.4 percent.
• In Lancaster, the amount raised by taxes increases by 3.96 percent.
• In Frontier, the tax levy increases by 3.5 percent.
Meanwhile, the nation’s rate of inflation is about 2 percent.
So what is behind the school tax increases?
Pension costs. Districts are seeing the largest single-year increase in decades in the local taxpayer contribution to the teachers’ retirement system, and this is occurring at a time when many school district reserve accounts have already been drained.
And it is not just local districts grappling with pension contributions for teachers and support staff.
“That alone is causing significant budgetary problems in many school districts,” said David Albert of the New York State School Boards Association. “It’s a much larger expense for next year than it was for the current year.”
That pressure isn’t going away anytime soon. School district payments for teacher pensions are just now making up for losses during the recession.
Increased payments to the retirement system are expected to continue at least for several years, said Erie 1 BOCES Superintendent Donald Ogilvie, and that forecast is supported by statements made by the Teachers’ Retirement System and those who closely track it.
School districts will spend the next few weeks grappling with these issues as they finalize budget proposals ahead of a May 21 vote.
Despite better-than-expected state aid, some districts will still ask voters to approve bigger tax increases than last year.
In Clarence, for example, school board members are considering a budget that would include a 9.8 percent increase in the amount of money raised through taxes – a proposal that would need a 60 percent approval rating from voters to exceed the state-imposed tax cap.
“We think this is a one-time tax increase that helps us get back to a level playing field,” said Superintendent Geoffrey Hicks.
The district has depleted its reserves and fund balance in recent years to keep tax rate increases steady as state aid dropped. That option is running out, while pension and health care costs continue to rise.
The district has cut about 85 staff members in previous budgets, and more are slated in the current proposal to keep a spending increase to about 1.1 percent. Any more cuts would have significant impact on programs, Hicks said.
“We don’t think deconstructing a great school district is a viable option,” he said.
While Clarence is proposing one of the highest increases on the table so far, other districts also will ask taxpayers to pay more.
In Williamsville, where School Board members sought to spare academic and extracurricular programs, the proposed budget would include a 3.89 percent increase in tax revenue – the largest increase in eight years.
Again, pension costs are blamed.
Retirement system contributions for Williamsville will increase next year by $3.1 million, or more than half of the total spending increase the district has proposed.
Without that increase, the district’s proposed 3.89 percent increase in tax revenues would shrink to 1.04 percent, said Scott G. Martzloff, Williamsville’s superintendent.
“It would just amount to a large number of cuts and personnel all across the board in our district – teachers, administrators, support staff – that would have to be reduced to address that,” Martzloff said. “It’s difficult. If we make massive cuts like that, we really are to the point where we are impinging on the character of our school district.”
Many district administrators view the pension contribution rates, which are set by the state retirement systems, as non-negotiable numbers that are out of their control.
But school administrators should approach the contributions as “an integral element of overall teacher compensation,” said E.J. McMahon, senior fellow at the Empire State Center for New York State Policy, a conservative fiscal watchdog policy group.
“The way you pay for rising pension costs over the next few years is by insisting on an offsetting salary freeze,” McMahon said.
Aside from increasing pension and health insurance costs, a state-imposed tax cap is also changing the way districts think about budgeting.
“You used to work from your budget and look at your revenues and decide what you thought the taxpayers would be willing to pay,” said Barbara Sporyz, Hamburg’s director of administrative services. “Now you work backwards from what you can levy, and you look in your budget to see what you can afford.”
The tax cap – although often explained as a 2 percent cap – is actually formulated based on growth and exclusions and is different for each district.
In Hamburg, that means increasing taxes 5.4 percent and spending by 6.45 percent. The budget continues current academic programs, athletics and extracurricular activities, but reduces staffing in elementary classrooms due to declining enrollment.
The tax cap in Clarence would allow taxes to grow by 3.8 percent, and the board would have to chop another $2.5 million to get down to that point.
“At this point, we cannot go forward with more and further reductions,” the superintendent said.
Districts can exceed their tax-levy cap only with approval of 60 percent of voters.
“We know from last year that your risk of budget failure increases substantially if you exceed the tax levy,” Albert said.
School board members in Niagara Wheatfield learned that lesson. An initial proposal last year to exceed the tax cap failed. The district will not take that route again. Instead, school board members plan to make more cuts to the district’s budget to remain within the district’s 5.91 percent taxing limit.
“We have, in the last two years, cut 91 positions,” said interim Superintendent James Knowles. “It gets to a point where it becomes very difficult because what you begin to do is you cut programs, and that’s very difficult to do. We’re here to educate youngsters.”
For many districts, proposed tax increases will come with budget cuts.
West Seneca, for example, will spend less money on schools this year than last, but tax revenue would go up nearly 3 percent.
Budget savings – including a retirement incentive that 130 teachers and staff will take advantage of – were just not enough to offset other rising expenses, including pension and health care costs.
“We’re essentially downsizing ourselves as best we can,” said Brian Schulz, the district’s treasurer.