Tough choices about school spending continued to face many local districts Tuesday despite a slightly rosier state aid picture than expected.
Several local school districts put the final touches on budget proposals they will send to voters in May.
School boards have only a few weeks to finalize their spending plans for 2014-15 so residents can vote on the proposals May 20.
In the Williamsville Central School District, administrators plan to use an unexpected increase in state aid to buy more than $500,000 in equipment the district has put off purchasing for years.
That will include musical instruments, gym equipment and science and technology items, as well as tractors used to maintain district facilities.
“We have had major, major reductions in our equipment funds over the course of the last five years,” said Thomas Maturski, assistant superintendent for finance and management services.
The extra state aid – added by state lawmakers last week – came after the district had already cut administrative staff and reorganized its technology department in an effort to save money in the 2014-15 budget. Reductions also included negotiations over health care costs with the district’s unions.
The Williamsville School Board voted unanimously Tuesday night to adopt a proposed $173.9 million budget that would increase spending by 2.3 percent but keep the tax increase under a state-imposed property tax cap.
“The most important thing is we stayed away from cutting programs,” said board member Ronald Shubert.
The proposed tax rate would increase 1.37 percent next year, if voters approve the 2014-15 budget proposal May 20.
Hamburg will see higher elementary class sizes, cuts in foreign languages, elimination of intramurals and restructuring the guidance, detention and music programs next year under the budget the School Board adopted Tuesday.
The $62.43 million budget would spend 3.6 percent more than this year, and raise the tax levy $1.4 million, or 4.2 percent, which is just under the district’s tax cap.
A total of 16.6 full-time positions would be eliminated, most through attrition. There would be a reduction in full-time staff of 4.8 positions. By adding an additional $500,000 in fund balance to reduce the tax levy, the district was able to keep fourth grade music, elementary health and a library media specialist.
Only board member Catherine Schrauth Forcucci voted no, saying the board received the full budget Tuesday afternoon. She noted the board’s calendar scheduled budget adoption for April 22. “I spend more time shopping for a $500 television than I was given to review this $62 million budget,” she said.
A last-minute change in PILOT payments to the Sweet Home Central School District will mean a lower property tax bill for the average homeowner, the School Board was told Tuesday night.
The district was just notified by the Amherst Industrial Development Agency that $12 million in properties are coming off payments in lieu of taxes and onto the tax rolls, Robert McDow, director of finance and plant services, explained.
As a result, McDow added, payments of $942,000 will be shifted to the district’s tax levy and will increase the cap on it. That will bring a reduction of $11 on the tax bill for the average home.
The board unanimously passed the $69,826,451 spending plan, up 2.4 percent from the previous year. There was no public comment on the budget and no discussion by the board.
McDow said the approximate tax rate will be $14.55 per $1,000 assessed valuation for homeowners in Amherst, up from $14.32, and $31.58 per $1,000 for homeowners in the Town of Tonawanda section of the district.
Thanks to the state property tax rebate, which will reimburse homeowners for school tax increases in districts that stay under their tax levy cap, the actual increase will be “net zero,” McDow added.
An additional $770,734 more in state aid for Orchard Park schools smoothed much of the budget angst in the district, allowing the administration to restore some of the staff positions and programs it had threatened to cut for next year.
The School Board now is poised to adopt an $89.19 million budget for 2014-15 on April 22 that would carry a 3.66 percent spending increase and raise the tax levy by 4.22 percent, the highest allowable under the levy cap.
Administrators sharpened their pencils and brought back some items that had been on the chopping block – such as two librarian positions, many extracurricular clubs, leaving sports programs intact and restoring an intramural program at the high school level. However, the district did have to pare items such as reducing summer days for guidance counselors, cutting the pay of substitute teachers and is considering increasing fees for facility use, among other trims.
Earlier budget cuts called for the elimination of 13.5 full-time equivalent positions, 11 of them in teaching. The final recommended budget calls for just 3.5 full-time-equivalent staff cuts, one of them in teaching and 2.5 in support staff.
“We looked at what was good for the students at all levels,” Superintendent Matthew P. McGarrity said Tuesday, noting the positive outcome resulting from the budget restorations. “We’re thrilled with the additional state aid and we’re able to keep quality programs in front of the students. That’s the bottom line.”
To some parents’ disappointment, the district will not fund a popular Spectrum program for gifted and talented students. Instead, the administration is funding differentiated learning – a move viewed as more sustainable in the budget climate and one which will still challenge students, McGarrity said.
Under the budget expected to go to voters in May, the district estimates the tax rate increase to be about 2.28 percent, amounting to $73 more in taxes on a home assessed at $100,000.
City of Tonawanda
A boost in state aid will help the Tonawanda City School District repair its budget hole for 2014-15, but the potential tax levy rate is still in flux as the School Board, and a budget advisory team met to discuss the situation Tuesday night.
After the passage of the state budget last week, Tonawanda will receive an increase of $438,732 over Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s original proposal for a total of $16.1 million in aid. Along with other adjustments, now district revenues are projected to be more than the proposed $30.4 million spending plan by $152,092.
Tonawanda officials are considering several scenarios to balance their budget plan before the scheduled adoption next week. The district can fully fund its payments to the state teacher retirement system by $225,498 or restore some staffing reductions.
Because of the uncertainty, Tonawanda is still considering several options that could potentially keep the tax levy rate flat or raise it to its cap of 4.4 percent, although the latter is unlikely.
Richard Hitzges, a BOCES administrator hired by the district to formulate its budget, talked about a plan that would increase the tax levy by 1.1 percent, which would hike the average homeowner’s tax bill about $4.25.
What could confuse residents is an increase to the city’s tax levy that potentially lowers tax rates by 4.26 percent. However, the average assessed value of a home increased from $88,000 to $92,000, so residents would still pay slightly more money even with a lower rate.
News staff reporters Barbara O’Brien, Dale Anderson, Karen Robinson and correspondent Mark Ciemcioch contributed to this report.