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Tuesday is decision day for school voters

Saturday, May 18, 2013
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A Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake School budget sign greets motorists on Route 50 in Burnt Hills on Friday.
A Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake School budget sign greets motorists on Route 50 in Burnt Hills on Friday.

— School leaders have spent months grappling with how to control rising costs and still preserve educational quality. Now voters will have their say Tuesday.

They will be going to the polls in more than 600 school districts across the state, making a “yes” or “no” decision on the budgets being offering by boards of education.

If recent history is a guide, at least 90 percent of the budgets across the state will pass, even though property tax increases are usually involved.

Districts may also have contests for school board seats and be putting up separate spending propositions for things like buses.

New York State School Boards Association officials say most school officials are optimistic going into Tuesday’s voting.

“School board members and their leadership teams have devoted countless hours to listening to their communities and crafting budgets that balance the needs of students and taxpayers,” said NYSSBA Executive Director Timothy G. Kremer.

Of 35 school districts in The Sunday Gazette’s circulation area, nearly all are proposing tax levy increases that stay within their state-established “tax cap,” under an increase-capping system now in its second year. A budget that overrides the cap must be approved by 60 percent of voters, rather than a simple majority.

The average levy increase regionwide is 3 percent, based on a Gazette analysis of information from the state Education Department.

“What we have seen over the last few years is elimination of positions, drawdown of fund balances, and now the tax cap has made districts reluctant to exceed the cap,” said David Albert, spokesman for the school boards association. “It is much harder to get 60 percent.”

Statewide, only 28 districts are seeking to override the cap — including only Niskayuna and South Colonie in the Capital Region.

Niskayuna voters are being asked to approve a $76.3 million budget with a 5.76 percent tax levy increase. The district’s tax cap is 4.6 percent.

Despite the size of the tax increase, overall spending is up only 1.3 percent, Superintendent Susan Kay Salvaggio said. The district has seen state aid cut by millions of dollars in the last four years, she said, and the district can’t cut spending more without hurting the quality of education.

“We have pension increases, we have less fund balance to use and state aid has declined, and all that has hit us at once,” Salvaggio said.

The state tax cap, while often promoted as being two percent, is in fact always higher. Costs like teacher pension contributions are excluded, and districts can factor in increases in their tax bases from new construction.

South Colonie is proposing a 4.98 percent levy increase on a $92.2 million spending plan, a half-percentage point above its cap.

District officials said they’re dealing with the loss of $13.2 million in state aid over the last four years, and they’ve cut expenses. Total spending is rising only a half-percent.

“This has been a very difficult process,” South Colonie Superintendent Jonathan W. Buhner writes on the district website.

In Schenectady, the district is balancing its $159.3 million budget by closing a school, increasing class sizes and eliminating 105 positions, including 76 aides in special education classrooms.

The budget includes a one percent tax levy increase. For the owner of the average-priced Schenectady house, the increase would be $22.45, for a total tax bill of $2,198.

The most controversial cut was the special education aides. The school board decided to eliminate some aides and use that money to retrain teachers, while also hiring reading specialists, psychologists, social workers and other experts to help special education children.

There are five people running for three seats on the Schenectady school board: incumbent board President Cathy Lewis and Vice President Ann Reilly and three newcomers, Thomas Hodgkins, Ed Kosiur and Bernice Rivera.

Schenectady’s proposed job cuts aren’t unusual. The New York State United Teachers union estimates 2,816 teaching jobs and 786 support positions are being cut statewide this year, with more than 2,000 of the losses through layoffs.

Since 2010, 5.4 percent of the state’s public school teaching jobs have been eliminated, according to the school boards association. The number has fallen from 214,530 in 2010 to 203,001 in 2012.

Educational spending has its critics.

The Empire Center for New York State Policy last week released a study that found the average per-pupil spending proposed for 2013-14 is rising at the highest rate since the recession. The average proposed tax increase is 3.9 percent, up from 3 percent last year.

The center, in a different report, faulted the state’s exclusion of pension costs from the tax cap as being unfair to poorer districts.

“The pension exclusion undermines the effectiveness of a tax cap law that is otherwise well structured to balance tax restraint with flexibility for local voters in the long run,” wrote E.J. McMahon, a senior fellow at the center.

If proposed budgets are voted down Tuesday, school district officials can revise them and submit them to voters a second time. But if a proposed budget is rejected twice, districts must impose a budget that has no increase in the tax levy.

Polls will open between 7 a.m. and noon, depending on the district, with all closing at 9 p.m.

 
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