The auditorium of Amsterdam High School was filled with the sounds of screaming taxpayers Tuesday night, men and women enraged by the school district’s proposal to raise its property tax levy by 16.5 percent and cut 61 positions, most of them teachers.
City resident Robert Vennett was the first, but far from the last, to blast the school board for the proposed plan.
“You’re taxing us to death!” he yelled. “You know there is a 2 percent property tax cap coming next year so you’re trying to get all you can now. You’re screwing us!”
“Sir, we’re not trying to screw you,” School board President Raymond Crosby replied.
“I don’t believe that,” Vennett shot back. “You’re going to drive all of the taxpayers out of this district.”
Tuesday night was the public hearing for the Greater Amsterdam School District’s $58.4 million 2011-12 budget proposal. The budget would raise the property tax levy about $3 million to $21.4 million, up from $18.4 million for 2010-11 school year.
The 2011-12 budget would spend about $659,155 more than the current school year, an increase of 1.14 percent. State aid for the district is actually up about 1.67 percent, $518,174, but not up enough to pay for rising costs.
For the prior two budgets Amsterdam held the property tax levy to a zero percent increase. Last year this was accomplished by spending $5.4 million of the district’s reserves, but now the district only has $2.5 million in reserves to put toward its 2011-12 budget.
The cost of educational programming, almost all of which is teacher salary and benefits, is set to increase by $790,479, 1.92 percent from last year. That’s after cutting the 61 positions, of which about 40 are teachers. Capital costs are also up $323,334, a 3.05 percent increase.
Taxpayers expressed disgust and confusion at the proposed budget and demanded more cuts from the board, but not of sports or teachers.
“No, don’t cut sports,” town of Amsterdam resident Lisa Scarofile said. “Isn’t there a way to cut a few administrators, make someone else work a little extra. Don’t cut the small positions cut the administrators.”
The cost of Amsterdam’s 10 school district administrators is actually set to decrease by $454,657 from last year. The cost decrease is primarily due to the administrators voluntarily accepting a less expensive health insurance plan, allowing for a wage freeze and a $90,000 savings from some of them agreeing to work 11 months instead of 12. The proposed budget does not cut any administrators.
Superintendent Thomas Perillo said the state law requires every school building to have a principal, so he believes that of the 10 administrators Amsterdam could probably only legally cut about four of them, which would save approximately $500,000.
School board member Patrick Krohn said state auditors have told the board they are amazed Amsterdam functions with as few administrators as it does.
City resident Frank Alibozek expressed outrage that most of Amsterdam’s teachers receive two raises annually, their “step raises” and a contractually agreed upon percentage raise on top of the step increase.
“Nobody gets raises like that, no company would ever do it. They’d be out of business,” he said. “I don’t want to see teacher layoffs, don’t get me wrong, but they shouldn’t be getting step raises and raises on top of that. The party is over.”
Several members of the public said they had heard the teachers union might be willing to accept the district’s proposal to freeze wages and accept a less expensive health insurance, moves that would save the district $2.3 million. In a rare show of emotion from a district administrator, a red-faced Perillo responded to the rumors by shouting and slamming his fist.
“If that’s true, then why hasn’t there been a concession!” he screamed.
Several residents implored the school board to reveal the name of the teachers union president, but Crosby refused to tell them.
The name of the Greater Amsterdam Teachers Union President is Richard Peters.
Crosby said there was little money to be saved by cutting popular programs such as sports, $250,000, band, which is self-sufficient, or drama, which would leave the district’s auditorium empty most of the year.
“There’s nothing left to cut,” he said.
Several school board members said the district would have had to cut 118 positions to achieve a zero percent tax levy increase. That many cuts could put the district in danger of state sanctions that would take its programming out of local control, they said.
Crosby said if the board choses to it could adopt its proposed budget, even if district residents vote it down because the budget is already $361,239 less than a contingency budget. His statements further enraged the crowd.
“Why don’t you just repeal democracy then? Why are we even having this meeting,” yelled Scarofile.
Krohn told the angry crowd that when he first ran for the board he believed the school board should do more to restrict cost increases, but he said he never realized how little control the district has over spending because of state mandates.