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As enrollments decline, school spending increases stay under state cap

At the end of June, workers will cart off supplies and furniture in neatly labeled boxes from Potters Road Elementary in West Seneca. Ten teachers at Potters Road will lose their jobs. The children will move to other neighborhood schools. It is the second elementary school West Seneca has closed in three years.

“Having done this before doesn’t make it easier,” West Seneca Assistant Superintendent Timothy Oldenburg said as he walked the school’s turquoise tiled halls last week.

Cuts have hit every school in the region in recent years as costs rose, enrollments in most districts dropped and the state pulled back on funding. Buildings have gone dark. Teachers have moved on. Buses have been taken off the road.

Yet the cost of those schools keeps going up.

Voters across Erie and Niagara counties on Tuesday will be asked to approve spending a total of $2.1 billion on 37 school districts for the new school year, an 8.5 percent increase over the previous five years.

Though the increase mirrors inflation, the money is paying for fewer children. Nearly all of those school districts experienced enrollment drops during that same time.

“What we’re seeing overall is that, even though the student population is decreasing, spending is still going up,” said Tim Hoefer, executive director of the Empire Center for Public Policy, a conservative watchdog group that tracks government spending in Albany. “That trend is holding almost universally statewide.”

The good news is the pace of spending increases has slowed dramatically. Between the 2005-06 and 2010-11 school years, total budgeted spending shot up 19.3 percent. That was before the state’s tax cap took effect and the state took back promised state aid.

Still, when local residents in suburban, rural and small city school districts go to the polls Tuesday, they will see budget proposals that increase spending in 31 out of 37 districts. The amount of taxes to be collected will increase in 32 out of 37 districts in Erie and Niagara counties. One district, Cleveland Hill, will reduce local tax revenue. Four others will keep taxes flat.

School leaders say they’ve cut budgets bare during the last five years to make up for a grim combination of increasing costs, disappointing state aid and declining enrollments. Many see signs that their finances are turning the corner.

But school administrators also worry about the increasing demands that keep pushing spending up. Next year, for example, districts must change the way they teach students who are still learning to speak English and bring in independent evaluators to assess teachers. Those new directives come with a cost.

“The question is, how much have schools taken on over the last 20 years?” said Frontier Superintendent Bret Apthorpe.

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There were few visible signs at Potters Road Elementary in West Seneca on a recent Tuesday morning that the school will close next month. The walls were adorned with children’s writings about Willy Wonka. The sound of xylophones floated through the hallway. Music blasted from the gym as children cradled lacrosse sticks.

West Seneca administrators say the district has done everything it could to protect programs like music and art in recent years despite aid cuts and declining enrollment.

Administrators froze their own pay. Employees agreed to forgo some contractual increases. The School Board pared about 250 jobs through attrition and retirement incentives. It closed a school and another facility.

This year, with West Seneca’s state aid still below what it received in 2009-10 and savings running out, the district ran out of options.

“We’ve turned over every stone,” Oldenburg said.

West Seneca will lay off 25 teachers and a school nurse at the end of the year. Potters Road will close to align with enrollment drops. Students will see some program changes.

The closure of Potters Road is just one example of cuts that have taken place at schools across Erie and Niagara as education has gotten more expensive and the number of students dropped.

Kenmore-Tonawanda has cut 230 jobs, closed two schools and plans to close three more.

Wilson merged its elementary schools.

Clarence cut 67 teaching positions over four years.

Like many other districts, Williamsville reduced its payroll, restructured its insurance and asked employees to pay for more of their benefits.

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This year, with state aid levels rebounding and a drop in required teacher pension contributions, a few districts are starting to restore some of the programs they cut in recent years. Others are still making deep cuts.

But nearly every district in the region had one goal while planning for the new school year: Stay within the tax cap.

“One of our goals is always have respect for tax fatigue,” said Geoffrey Hicks, superintendent of Clarence Central School District, where a $75 million budget proposal would stay within the tax cap and restore some positions cut in recent years.

Two years ago, Clarence leaders attempted to pass a budget that would have exceeded the cap, which is calculated based on inflation and other factors unique to each district. The budget went down.

That has been a powerful motivator for districts, Hoefer said.

“Something dramatic happened in 2011 when the tax cap was passed,” Hoefer said. “It changed the voters’ power.”

Since the tax cap was enacted, districts have fewer choices for revising their spending plans if voters defeat their budget proposals.

Only one Erie or Niagara school district, Niagara Falls, will attempt to exceed the cap this year. While taxes would stay flat under the district’s proposal, its tax cap would have forced it to reduce the amount of taxes collected. The $133 million proposal increases spending by 5.7 percent, but may cut up to 45 jobs.

While spending increases have slowed, those who watch school budgets closely say the biggest expense – employee salaries – is also one of the most difficult to cut.

“If you’re looking for where do you get the most bang for your buck, you’ve got to ask how much are you paying your teachers,” said Hoefer, who advocates for districts to compare their salary costs with similarly sized schools across the country.

Hoefer said the Triborough Amendment, which prohibits school districts and other public employers from changing the terms of an expired contract until a new agreement is reached, makes it difficult for school districts to negotiate new contracts. The state law means school employees continue to receive longevity step pay increases in a contract even if it is expired.

“They have to give the school districts that want them the tools to cut costs,” Hoefer said.

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School leaders say they’ve been given the opposite. They point to a long list of directives from the state that cost money.

This year, for example, many school districts will have to hire new teachers to meet changing requirements in how they instruct students who are still learning English. In Williamsville, the district will hire new teachers at a cost of $504,000 to meet the changing requirements.

“Certainly, whenever there’s a new mandate, you understand there’s a reason for wanting to increase services for children,” said Williamsville Superintendent Scott Martzloff. “But at the same time, there’s a cost to that.”

In West Seneca, where the district is laying off 26 employees, the school will also add 3½ positions for the new requirements for teaching learners of English.

“With all this stuff going on,” said West Seneca Superintendent Mark Crawford, “the mandates haven’t stopped.”

email: djgee@buffnews.com