It’s not easy having your budget defeated by the voters this year if you’re a school administration. In the first place, if you were trying to raise taxes beyond what a new state formula permitted, you needed 60 percent approval, and then, if you lost, you no longer had a so-called contingency budget to fall back on that is almost the same as the rejected budget and maybe even bigger.
Under the new tax-cap regime, the fall-back contingency budget cannot raise any more in taxes than was raised in the preceding year. You will have to make do with the same number of dollars as before, even though inevitably many of your expenses will go up.
Take the little district of Oppenheim-Ephratah in Fulton County, with just 357 students and a proposed budget of $8.5 million. The state formula generated a tax cap of 2.8 percent on Oppenheim-Ephratah, but the administration and the school board figured they needed more. They needed an increase of 4.5 percent, which would of course require the approval of 60 percent of the voters.
Well, you can forget about that. The vote against was 275, the vote in favor just 104.
The choices now are to try again with a more modest increase, or tackle the coming year with the same amount of money as the current year.
“We would have to take out our equipment, our buses, our computers,” Superintendent Dan Russom said.
It would have been easier if the district had merged with neighboring St. Johnsville — “That would have bought us three, four, five years,” Russom said — but in December the district’s voters rejected that plan even though St. Johnsville’s overwhelmingly approved it.
“At some point the state is going to say we have too many districts,” he predicted, “and consolidation is not going to be voluntary.”
Or take Fonda-Fultonville, where the cap was set at 4.76 percent but the school board tried to get 7.98 percent. They needed super-majority approval but in the event got only 42 percent.
The effect of having to make do with the same amount of tax revenue in the coming year as in the current year “would be huge,” district treasurer Carey Schultz said. “We would have to make drastic cuts — it would have a huge effect on program.”
The oddest situation perhaps is in Stillwater, where the mandated cap was actually 4 percent below the current level of taxation because of a multimillion-dollar payment in lieu of taxes anticipated from Global Foundries, and the administration went ahead and asked the voters for a 3 percent increase instead, again requiring 60 percent voter approval. It was a close call, but still no cigar, with 56 percent agreeing.
And that in spite of a slight cut in proposed spending, a little less than 1 percent.
So these are tough times as school districts try to figure out how to manage after a couple years of cuts in state aid and in the face of rising pension costs.
The glory days of spend more, tax more seem to be over. High pay and bountiful benefits are locked in by contracts. Tax increases are limited. The only thing to do is cut equipment, cut programs, cut staff.
Somehow I knew this day would come.