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Revised 2012 budget narrows tax hike to 4.89%

The second time around for Niagara Wheatfield Central School District voters will feature a proposed budget that has an increase of less than 5 percent in the property tax rate.

The School Board voted, 4-2, Wednesday to present a $60.52 million fiscal package for 2012-13 on June 19 that would increase the take rate by an estimated 4.89 percent. On May 15, voters overwhelmingly defeated the last proposed budget of $61.7 million that carried an increase of 9.9 percent in the tax rate.

For nearly two hours, board members discussed what could be cut from the first budget to make it palatable to voters and the impact of each cut. From a recommended list of 20 items developed by school administrators since last week, the board selected items that would have the least impact on classroom instruction for a total of about $1.26 million in cuts.

The first budget already contained nearly $4.1 million in reductions that included the elimination of an estimated 50 positions throughout the district, according to school officials.

The largest item on the new list was the application of $431,000 in "unassigned dollars" to reduce the tax levy. The funds were included in the original first budget without any designation. Other items include the elimination of the instructional leadership administrator at $113,100; a $109,000 wage freeze for non-union personnel; $100,000 in legal fees; furloughing 30 building cleaners for a month to save $73,830; a guidance position at $60,000; $79,355 in athletic department reductions; and an administrative intern at $43,710.

Two items that were on the list of recommendations but were rejected by the board were the elimination of four elementary school teaching jobs to save $240,000 and cutting a half-time career mentor for the high school at $21,500.

According to the discussion, the elementary school jobs were saved to avoid further increases in class size, while the career mentor was kept because the guidance department had already been reduced this year.

Board President Steven Sabo said that he opposed cutting any more grade school teachers, since any further reductions in that area would be "setting up the kids for failure."

One budget cut that stirred discussion was $139,453 in "additional reductions."

Richard Hitzges, the financial consultant who developed the list for the board, said that although the specific reductions included in the amount were not named, they would have suggestions made by staff since last week's meeting. He said he had received a number of emails that he could turn into savings.

Board members Kristin MacKenzie and Kathy Fleming said they voted against the budget because the $139,453 in cuts were not identified. Neither said they had seen the emailed suggestions and wondered where these cuts were during budget deliberations.

Fleming and MacKenzie also are opposed to the elimination of the instructional leadership administrator post.

If the budget is again rejected by voters, the district will be forced by state law to adopt a budget that contains no tax increase.