This year’s school vote will come with a check in the mail for most homeowners.
For many, it won’t be much. The average check in Sweet Home will be about $20. In Springville, it will be about $33.
In school districts that stay within the property tax cap, the state will send out rebate checks to property owners to cover the cost of the increasing taxes.
“It’s nominal,” said Paul M. Connelly, superintendent of Springville-Griffith Institute. “It’s the notion that sets in: If I can make sure that my school districts stays under the cap, I’m going to get a check that I wouldn’t get anyway.”
The rebate checks have been derided by Albany watchdogs as an election-year gimmick. But they’re also the latest attempt by state lawmakers to put pressure on school districts to curb property taxes.
Click here for more on the candidates in Erie and Niagara Counties, including their positions on key issues.
Still, in many districts in Erie and Niagara counties, the amount spent on each child continues to increase faster than inflation. School districts, on average, expect to spend 14.8 percent more on each student next year than they did in 2009-10. Only one district, Holland, has reduced its per-student spending in that time.
It’s not that school board members haven’t been acutely aware of the effect of the state’s property tax cap. The few school districts that tried in the last two years to override the cap saw their budgets fail.
And it’s not that school districts haven’t made cuts. School districts have shed everything from teachers to gifted and talented programs in recent years to cut spending. But they’ve also lost students as the region’s population changes, seen pension and health care costs skyrocket and struggled through swings in state aid levels.
“The reality that everyone must confront is that student enrollments are declining in every district,” said Donald Ogilvie, who serves as a liaison to the state for 19 local school districts as district superintendent for Erie 1 BOCES.
Cutting spending as student populations shrink, however, can be difficult because the empty seats can be sprinkled through a school.
When suburban voters head to the polls Tuesday, they will weigh in on school spending plans that continue to shed jobs and educational extras.
In Hamburg, for example, elementary class sizes would get bigger and intramurals would be eliminated under the proposed budget. East Aurora would cut jobs, take two buses off the roads and trim the superintendent’s salary, among other changes, to help close a budget gap.
Other districts – including Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda, Williamsville and Clarence – continue to rely on money left over from previous years to plug budget holes. Those districts, like others, tried to avoid spending cuts that would impact the classroom for the 2014-15 school year.
“The school district gets revenue from two basic sources,” said Clarence Superintendent Geoffrey Hicks. “It gets it from property tax owners, and it gets it from the state. When you cap one and your expenses aren’t capped, then you’re going to have difficulty balancing the budget every year without making reductions.”
The state’s rebate checks added a new twist this year to school budget season. In school districts that stay within the state tax cap – based on the rate of inflation but with allowances for certain types of spending – homeowners are slated to get a check this fall from the state for the amount of their increased taxes. Districts must then put together a plan next year to show how they will save money by consolidating services, although a watered-down deal struck by state lawmakers allows districts to count consolidation steps they’ve previously taken.
While the checks are designed to put pressure on school districts to keep property tax increases low, almost all school districts in Erie and Niagara counties had sought to stay within the tax cap in recent years. Those that did not, such as Clarence last year, found themselves forced to make more cuts after voters defeated budget proposals.
Exceeding the tax cap
Tuesday, only one school district in the region will ask voters to exceed the tax cap. In Holland, where the tax cap would not allow for any property tax increase, board members will seek supermajority approval for a budget that reduces spending but increases the amount of taxes raised by 2.5 percent.
“Districts are already, by in large, living within their cap,” said Robert N. Lowry Jr., deputy director of the state’s Council of School Superintendents. “So that, in some sense, means you’re providing money to support something that was happening anyways.”
In Erie and Niagara counties, the rate at which school districts have increased taxes has seen a slight slowdown. In the three years since the property tax cap went into effect, school districts, on average, have sought to raise taxes 5.7 percent. In the three years prior to the tax cap enactment, those districts raised property tax revenue by 7.6 percent.
What has frustrated school administrators, however, is that while state lawmakers have effectively limited how much school districts can raise, administrators don’t think state lawmakers have done enough to curb state-driven expenses. While state-required pension costs have risen dramatically in recent years, for example, the effect of reduced pension benefits for new public employees won’t help school districts for years, Lowry noted.
“What the state’s done now is they’ve put the emphasis on the reduction in revenue without giving us relief on the expenditure side,” said Gerald Stuitje, assistant superintendent for finance for Ken-Ton.
That’s been a frequent rallying cry for school administrators hoping to see more state aid. While state lawmakers increased aid to schools in the 2014-15 state budget, many districts point out that the revenue they receive from the state remains below levels they received before the state budget crisis.
“It’s true that school districts have a responsibility to make sure that expenses are contained as much as possible through negotiations, contracts, whatever else it happens to be. Those things have to occur,” Hicks said. “I don’t think anyone has a problem, philosophically with the tax cap. Everyone would like to have lower taxes. The real question is, will the state provide the necessary resources that are owed to schools?”
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