Schalmont Central School District voters may have to decide this spring whether to approve a tax increase above the district's tax cap, accepting a higher property tax bill to save the district from dramatic cuts to staff and programs.
Even with a 2.95 percent tax levy increase -- over the district cap of 1.46 percent -- the school district will still be $400,000 short of maintaining the current level of programming offered to students, Superintendent Carol Pallas told the school board during a meeting Monday night.
The tight budget year comes after nearly a decade of budget cuts. Pallas said a budget advisory committee of staff, parents and other community members largely favored putting up a budget that exceeded the tax cap for voter approval in May. School budgets that exceed their state-mandated tax cap, which sets a limit for how much the district can increase its levy -- the total amount of local taxes collected -- require 60 percent approval from voters.
"The majority were of the mind that at this point after several years of cuts they feel it might be time to increase the tax levy and go over the threshold," Pallas said of the advisory committee.
While the school board members Monday did not explicitly discuss whether they were willing to break the tax cap, they appeared ready to move forward with a budget that did. They cited a long run of annual budget cuts that were making it increasingly difficult to leave prized academic programs untouched. They pointed to a run of eight budgets, dating to the Great Recession, with tax levy increases of 2 percent or less.
"Unfortunately, I think we are at that point, you saw the numbers, we don't have a choice," Board President Michael Pasquarella said of increasing the levy over the tax cap.
Under the governor's budget proposal, Schalmont would receive a $100,000 increase in foundation aid, the state's core education funding formula. Pallas said she was not optimistic higher overall funding levels in a final state budget would benefit Schalmont. She said she expected their state aid number to increase "maybe a couple thousand," based on conversations with local lawmakers. And the district's budget framework includes allocating $1 million from reserves funds -- a move that may not be possible in subsequent years.
If the district does raise its levy by 2.95 percent, homeowners would see increases of around $70 per $100,000 of assessed value, according to the district's estimate.
But a budget that breaks the tax cap still won't be enough to spare the district of all budget cuts. To cover the remaining $400,000 gap, Pallas listed the following cuts:
- Eliminate class sections due to sliding enrollment;
- Reduce school building and department budget by 10 percent;
- Cut some non-instructional staff;
- Eliminate three teacher aid positions;
- Consolidate bus runs;
- Bring special education students in outside placements back to district;
- Reduce field trips and athletic travel.
"These are not things we don't want to offer to students, but we really are getting into things that are going to be really difficult to cut," Pallas said.
Without the tax levy increase of nearly 3 percent, the district would be facing cuts to programs like BOCES New Visions, which sends students to pre-career classes and internship placements, deeper reductions of field trips and course electives and possibly the elimination of some junior varsity athletic teams.
And the long-term picture isn't much rosier either. Pallas and board members said the district is likely to find itself in the same position next year, and district officials are finding it harder and harder to borrow from reserves to cover big budget gaps. Broader changes to state foundation aid or a major push to increase those statewide funding levels may not benefit Schalmont, which continues to see sliding enrollment and already receives about 91 percent of what that formula says it should get.
"This is going to be an ongoing battle for years and years to come unless there is a fundamental change to the way education is funded," Pasquarella said.