School Budgets?Lead To Tough Decisions

In an age of tax caps and increasing state standards for education, the failure of Bemus Point’s 2013-14 budget proposal is interesting.

Most area districts’ budgets flew under the radar this year by proposing either no or small tax increases, due in no small part to previous cuts and increases in state aid in the 2013-14 state budget. Excluding Bemus Point, area budget proposals included tax levy changes ranging from a 4.8 percent decrease in Ripley to roughly 3 percent in a handful of other districts.

Bemus Point, meanwhile, proposed a $13,119,825 budget which included a $645,175 spending increase and a $424,134 tax levy increase. Such new spending would typically be stamped out whenever possible, but district officials had heard from several district residents early in the process that the district should spend more money to make sure the district has technology that will help students after they graduate. So, the budget was built to provide small class sizes, an extended pre-kindergarten program, a full day kindergarten program, multiple high school electives, college courses, AP courses, art, music, sports and extra-curricular activities. District officials also planned to use savings from the retirement of the district’s longtime high school principal to help pay for a $136,900 computer hardware and software upgrade that is necessary for online testing that will be required by the state in 2014-15.

At the district’s annual budget hearing, several district residents criticized the board for proposing a tax increase, especially when they saw it was possible to delay purchase of the $136,900 state testing software. Taxpayers’ anger can also be traced to recent history of tax levy increases in the district – 9.02 percent in 2004-05, 7 percent in 2005-06, 6.88 percent in 2006-07, 3.8 percent in 2007-08, zero in 2008-09 and 2009-10, 7.2 percent in 2010-11, 1.18 percent in 2011-12, 4.5 percent in 2012-13 and the 5.17 percent proposed in 2013-14.

Given the public hearing comments, the budget proposal’s failure by a 227-215 vote was not particularly surprising.

It is a perfect example, however, of the situation that will eventually face school districts throughout New York state as the conflicting directions of the state’s tax cap and tougher education standards come into contact with each other. Some districts are already looking at ways to solve this conundrum – Ripley and Chautauqua Lake with their tuitioning agreement and Brocton and Westfield with plans to hold a merger vote.

They are the first to have such talks, but they won’t be the last.