School Budget Proposals Hit The Polls

As Chautauqua County school districts face Tuesday budget votes, two out of 21 schools are on track with decreased spending plans.

Statewide, schools are proposing the lowest average tax levy in five years, while 96 percent of budgets have stayed within the tax cap, including several Chautauqua County school districts.

With voter approval, Bemus Point and Falconer budgets will be lower in 2014-15 – Falconer by $45,802, and Bemus Point by $192,600.

While Falconer’s budget is proposed to decrease by $45,802 from last year, the tax rate will remain at 1.48 percent if the budget is approved.

Jamestown Public Schools maintain the largest school budget in the county, at a total of $75,768,676, which is $338,996 more than last year’s budget. However, Jamestown Superintendent Tim Mains said it was important to the school board to keep the spending plan within its means without increasing taxes.

“The biggest change is taxes are the same this year as they were last year,” Mains said, shortly after the budget was approved in April.

Jamestown’s tax levy, the amount the district will receive through taxes, will remain at $14,641,567.

Tax levies in Panama and Randolph will also remain the same upon budget approval.

With a total budget of $12,927,165, Bemus Point proposes a tax levy increase of $158,216, which raises the tax rate by $0.29 per $1,000 of assessed value, even though the total budget amount is lower than last year, and places the district as the third-lowest tax rate in Chautauqua County.

Superintendent Michael Mansfield said voter support for the budget is key, and that the district wants to eliminate dependency on spending reserve funds.

Overall, 645 districts across the state are proposing budgets within their tax caps, which means they will need a simple majority of voters to approve their budgets.

“Over the past years, budgets have been getting tighter and tighter,” said Jerome Lee Yaw, business manager at Frewsburg Central School. “To create the budget and remain below the tax cap, we tried to keep our taxes down as much as possible.”

Frewsburg is looking at a total budget of $15,834,605, which is $328,326 more than last year. The proposed tax levy is $5,081,905, or 2 percent.

The school with the highest proposed budget increase over last year was Salamanca, with a total budget of $27,572,466 – an increase of $2,203,330.

However, a projected 30 percent decrease in the tax rate as a result of funds received in a settlement between the Seneca Nation of Indians and New York state along with $1.6 million in federal funds from Federal Impact Aid bring the tax levy down to $2,427,897.

“It’s approximately a $7 decrease per taxable home, business or entity,” said Bob Breidenstein, superintendent of Salamanca. “It’s primarily due to the federal money and decisions the board has made back to 2011 about restructuring our collective bargaining positions and not replacing vacant positions. We’ve been really fortunate, aggressive and persistent, and if there is a stone that has not been overturned looking for additional revenue, I don’t think it exists.”

Ripley Central School proposes a decrease in the tax levy by 4.9 percent. If approved, the $8,681,652 budget includes an estimated tax rate of $26.63 per $1,000 of assessed property value, as reported in the Westfield Republican. This constitutes a decrease of $1.50 from the current year.

STATE AID

Falconer Superintendent Stephen Penhollow said in a letter on the district’s website that schools are limited in the funding sources they have at their disposal.

“Our two main sources are state aid and taxes on the real property located in our district,” he said. “Given the shrinking resources we receive from the state, we have had to work very hard to maintain staffing and programs while living under the imposed tax levy cap without creating harmful cuts to student educational opportunities.”

Falconer is not alone.

Every other school in the state has experienced shortfalls in state aid.

The Gap Elimination Adjustment is the cause of these shortfalls, as the state has deducted aid allocation for each school district since the 2009-10 school year to help fill its own revenue shortfall.

For example, over the last five years, Frewsburg has experienced more than $5 million in losses due to the Gap Elimination Adjustment. This year, Bemus Point will not receive $405,404 of the state aid it is entitled to, bringing total losses to more than $6 million in the last six years.

“We’ve tightened it up a lot and lost a lot of state aid and made up for it with some out of the fund balance and some out of reserves,” Lee Yaw said.

More than 97 percent of districts across the state are drawing on reserve funds to help balance their budgets. Collectively, schools estimate they will use some $1.2 billion in fund balance in 2014-15 to lower school taxes.