Niagara Wheatfield school budget continues three-year dilemma - The Buffalo News
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Niagara Wheatfield school budget continues three-year dilemma

SANBORN – When voters in the Niagara Wheatfield Central School District go to the polls this month, they’re bound to get a feeling of déjà vu.

They may see the budget proposal for 2014-15 as a repeat performance of the same financial dilemma the district has put on the ballot for the last three years. Tax hikes, job eliminations, program cuts and threats of more belt-tightening to come have been typical elements of the scenario since 2011.

The proposal is to spend $64.62 million this coming year to support the district. The amount is about 4 percent higher than the cost this year, with $31.38 million needed from property taxes, according to district figures. Taxes will need to go up 4.8 percent, an amount within the state tax cap limit, so approval can come with a simple majority vote.

To keep the tax hike percentage under the cap, $1.45 million in cuts needed to be made. The School Board assigned new Superintendent Lynn Fusco to decide which areas would be hit. The only area off limits was kindergarten, she was told by board President Steven Sabo.

The list submitted by her and her staff would eliminate six elementary teachers (saving $432,258), 2.6 music positions ($178,069), a mechanic ($40,981), about a half arts and foreign language position ($40,033), some athletic programs ($87,838), club advisers ($36,287), a micro-computer coordinator ($70,653) and speech improvement through the Orleans-Niagara Board of Cooperative Educational Services ($115,310).

In addition, a reorganization of buildings and grounds that would save $299,276 and a change to require that high school electives have an enrollment of at least 26 students for the course to run ($187,477) would help balance the budget.

School officials have blamed the state for the deficit, noting regular state aid has been decreasing due to the gap elimination adjustment, which was implemented by state officials a few years ago to cover state budget gaps.

Fusco said Niagara Wheatfield has lost more than $20 million in state funding since 2010 as a result of the adjustment.

During that same time period, there have been increases in contractual costs such as salaries, health insurance premiums and pension contributions. And federal stimulus money was eliminated, while built-in factors such as the STAR property tax program have continued to have an impact.

In addition, the failure of the towns of Niagara and Wheatfield to update property values has resulted in inflated tax rates, school officials have contended.

Under the proposed budget, the average tax rate in the four towns of the district would be about $23.88 per $1,000 of assessed valuation. In Niagara, the rate is expected to be $29.74; Wheatfield, $25.57; Lewiston, $22.35; and Cambria, $17.85. However, because the final assessment rolls won’t be in before August, those rates are only projections at this time.

The total tax levy for next year is $31.38 million, or 48.5 percent of the budget. State aid accounts for 44.7 percent.

In previous years, the district used its reserve funds to cover budget gaps. Each year, millions were drained from the fund to prevent property tax hikes. From 2007 to 2010, board members were able to avoid any tax hike except for 2007, when the increase was less than 1 percent.

With the fund nearly dry in 2011, taxes rose 2.9 percent despite the application of about $4 million in reserve money. Reality hit the following year when voters rejected a proposed 9.9 percent tax hike and accepted a second budget package that included a tax hike of nearly 5 percent. Last year, the final budget had an increase of 4.5 percent for taxpayers. Meanwhile, a total of about 60 positions have been eliminated during that period, it was noted.

Current board members have been critical of their predecessors for failing to balance realistic budgets by using the mantle of a “zero” tax increase for political gains. Previous school business administrators also advised against the practice and recommended that taxes should go up at least as much as the rise in the consumer price index each year.

If the budget fails this month and the board opts to present a “zero” tax increase for a second vote, another $1.44 million in cuts would have to be made, according to Fusco.

Along with the budget, voters also will decide on creating a capital reserve fund to support education. Essentially a savings account, the fund eventually would total $2 million but the district would not be required to make deposits, Fusco said.

Voters also will decide on candidates for three seats on the board. Running are Dana Andrews, incumbent Christopher Peters, incumbent Richard Halleen, Gina Terbot, Daniel Haick and Darren Sneed. Each seat carries a three-year term.

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