Two local districts will share a superintendent. Two have wiped out their savings. An elementary school will close.
But for most schools, cuts haven't been enough to scale back spending that continues to rise faster than the money is coming in. To make up the difference, voters on Tuesday will be asked to raise taxes in all but two districts, with more than half proposing to increase the amount of taxes collected by 3 percent or more.
Faced with fewer students, higher expenses and less money, school districts across Erie and Niagara counties have done everything from mowing the grass less often to reopening teacher contracts during the last three years.
Some districts that held off steep tax increases in previous years found themselves with fewer options as they crafted budgets for 2013-2014, including:
• Clarence has kept tax increases down as state aid dropped by dipping into savings for the last five years. With those funds nearly gone, the district will now need a 9.8 percent increase in the amount of taxes collected to balance the budget despite roughly two dozen job cuts.
• Lewiston-Porter has wiped out its savings and would cut 23 jobs next year, but will ask voters to exceed the state-imposed tax cap with a 5.5 percent increase in tax revenue in order to balance its budget.
• Niagara Falls for years has used layoffs and other cuts to keep taxes steady, but on Tuesday will seek a 3 percent tax increase for the first time in 20 years.
School leaders across the region say they've done what they could to trim spending with as little impact as possible on students, but some taxpayers wonder if more could still be done.
“Why are all of our tax increases always more than inflation?” asked Marlese Wacek, a Clarence resident who has become an outspoken critic of the district's budget. “We have seniors in this community. They're on a fixed income, and they can't afford these tax increases.”
Only one district – Cheektowaga-Sloan – is proposing to decrease the amount of taxes collected next year. All but two districts – Clarence and Lewiston-Porter – have proposed budgets that remain within a state-imposed tax cap. Those two districts will need a 60 percent voter approval rate on Tuesday to pass their budgets.
Educators, meanwhile, worry about the impact of years of school cuts on students. As schools continue to struggle to make up for promised state aid that never arrived and to pay for the rising benefit costs, districts are also dealing with implementing sweeping curriculum changes and teacher evaluation plans that require more training, materials and time.
“There's a fundamental clash between the capacity of school districts to survive under the revenue scenarios that we face with the professional obligation to provide the best program we can,” said Donald Ogilvie, district superintendent for Erie 1 BOCES, which provides finance and other services for area districts.
Cuts aren't enough
In West Seneca, where enrollment has dropped 8.1 percent during the last five years, the district has looked at spending large and small as it trimmed expenses. Double-sided copies have become the norm, lawn maintenance has been scaled back and computers are shut down at night. The district also tackled its largest expense – labor costs – by renegotiating contracts with employees to implement salary delays and freezes in 2010.
Before classes begin in September, 132 employees will take a retirement incentive and an elementary school will close to address the drop in the number of students. But the changes aren't enough. The district is one of four in Erie and Niagara counties that plans to reduce spending in 2013-2014, but is still seeking an increase in property tax revenue.
“Even though we've substantially reduced the budget, we just have less on the revenue side,” said District Treasurer Brian Schulz.
Like West Seneca, Barker also reduced spending in its proposed budget, but will ask voters to approve a 3.5 percent increase in the amount of taxes collected as other revenues drop. To cut costs, Barker has taken a path few districts in the state have taken – it will share a superintendent with Royalton-Hartland next school year.
Those types of “functional consolidation” measures may become more common as districts run out of options to trim their budgets if current trends continue. Ogilvie of BOCES said he expects more districts will take a look at items such as back-office operations and transportation, but so far, state incentives for consolidating districts or creating regional high schools haven't been enough to nudge schools in that direction.
“There's still a strong feeling that if we analyze our own operations, if we cut costs, we'll be able to weather this,” Ogilvie said. “But we're at a point now where we don't want to trade the threat of fiscal insolvency for the reality of educational insolvency. So there's a lot of very serious thought focused on the long-term sustainability and workable strategy for ensuring that programs are there in the future.”
Like other districts, maintaining classroom programs and extracurricular activities was a priority for school leaders in Clarence, where the district has proposed the largest increase in taxes collected in Erie and Niagara counties.
Clarence relied heavily on reserve funds during the last five years to keep tax increases down as state aid dropped below expectations. That strategy has run out, and despite cutting 90 positions and $5.8 million from the budget during a three-year period, district leaders have proposed a 9.8 percent increase in the amount of taxes collected next year.
“The district utilized the reserve and fund balance dollars as a means to maintain programs and keep taxes low,” said Clarence Superintendent Geoffrey Hicks. “We don't have the ability to utilize those funds anymore. They've been depleted.”
With that tax hike, spending would increase by 1.1 percent and the district's $15,302 spending-per-student for 2013-2014 would remain second-lowest among school districts in Erie and Niagara counties.
“There's a belief that additional spending cuts would have a significant, detrimental impact on the core programs of the district,” Hicks said.
But Wacek, who is a member of a group known as Clarence Taxpayers, which is advocating for voters to turn down the Clarence budget proposal, wants more to be done. She would like the district to reopen its contract with teachers.
“The people I'm talking to when I go out and hand out flyers and put out signs, they're all saying, 'This is too much,' ” Wacek said. “What are they doing with all that money?”
Some programs resurface
In North Collins, for example, cuts in recent years to music and technology meant that popular programs like select choruses and ensembles came to a standstill. The district has proposed bringing back a part-time music teacher and reinstating drafting and design courses in technology.
“We have seniors that are leaving at a half a day because there's nothing left for them to take as students,” North Collins Superintendent Benjamin A. Halsey said. “And we're trying to address that, but on a very small scale.”
The district has proposed a 3 percent increase in property taxes collected – about the norm for districts across Erie and Niagara counties – but because of its small size, its $24,063 per-student spending projected for next year is the highest across the two counties.
That's because North Collins has about 600 students and just three administrators, but still has to provide all of the special education, transportation and other services as other districts, Halsey said.
“Those costs are going to have a larger impact even though our enrollment has come down,” Halsey said. “It hasn't come down far enough to where we can make ourselves any smaller as far as our capital facilities and our administration. We're in that area where we've gotten smaller, but not small enough to where we can make any significant changes in our facilities or our staffing.”
Other schools face the same dilemma. As enrollment has dropped in schools across the region, the cost per student has continued to climb. There are fewer students in all but three school districts in Erie and Niagara counties than five years ago. During that time, the median per-student spending has increased by 15.2 percent to $17,406.
Many expect the trends to continue.
“If you think this year is tough,” said Frontier Board President Janet MacGregor Plarr, “we have another few tough years ahead of us.”
email: firstname.lastname@example.org News Staff Reporter Karen Robinson contributed to this report.