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SCHOOL BOARDS APPROVE BUDGETS IN THREE NIAGARA COUNTY DISTRICTS

Three Niagara County school boards approved budgets Monday, hoping that residents of their districts do the same next month.

In Barker, Lockport and Starpoint, boards supported the spending plans while bemoaning increased pension and health insurance costs.

In Lockport, the board approved a $64.7 million budget that hikes spending by $1.7 million, while while increasing the tax levy by less than 1 percent.

Assistant Superintendent of Finance Gerald J. Stuitje said tax rate figures would be tabulated later this week but would reflect the increase in the property tax levy.

The Barker School Board approved an $18.3 million budget that would increase spending by about 471,000.

District Business Administrator Deborah Coder said the hike will increase the property tax rate by 27 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation, bumping it up from $20.24 to $20.51.

In Pendleton, the Starpoint School Board adopted a $36.4 million budget that would raise the property tax rate by 54 cents per $1,000 assessed valuation, from $21.64 to $22.18 per $1,000.

Voters go to the polls May 17 to decide the fate of the budgets.

Lockport School Board President W. Keith McNall called for a vote after the board approved $515,500 in reductions from the proposed district budget to keep the tax levy increase below 1 percent.

The board approved by a 7-1 vote. McNall pointed out that most of the spending increase is tied to state mandates and contractual obligations. For example, the district must raise its contributions to the State Teachers Retirement System by $543,459 next school year, while health insurance costs for district employees will go up by $531,233. He said those two things alone "account for about 62 percent of the increased spending."

Superintendent Bruce T. Fraser said the board has managed to keep the tax levy fairly steady since 2003-2004.

In Starpoint, Superintendent C. Douglas Whelan said the budget exceeds last year's district spending by $1.6 million but added that $1.2 million of the increase represented costs that were either triggered by state mandates, contractual obligations or inflation.

The district must increase its contributions to the State Teachers Retirement system by $305,000 and by $80,000 to the State Employees Retirement System during the upcoming school year; spend another $104,000 for the cost of employee health benefits; $391,000 more for employee pay hikes; $166,000 more for textbooks; and an additional $177,000 for student transportation.

Board President Diane J. Braun said she was pleased with the budget "despite all the major increases in areas like retirement, utilities and transportation. It's a very reasonable budget. I'm sure it's under the rate of inflation and voters will support it."

"I think it's fantastic," Whelan said. "It's only up 2.4 percent even though we are a growing district. The board worked hard and went over it line by line. It's a very cost-effective plan."

e-mail: pwestmoore@buffnews.com

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