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BUSINESS GROUP RAISES PROFILE IN WILLIAMSVILLE BUDGET FRAY

It's a million-dollar battle that has fractured a community, pitting parent against parent and transforming high school athletics into a grim but innocent messenger of taxpayer discontent.

And it took a nudge from the Amherst Chamber of Commerce to help the Williamsville Central School Board try to put things back together again.

An unlikely partner, some would say. But maybe not.

"It's in vogue for business to tell public schools what to do or what not to do," said William Pape of the New York State School Board Association.

It has been happening for years on Long Island, where communities have long tired of high property taxes for their schools.

"We encourage our school districts to operate like a business, sharing services, whether it's the lunch program or business program," said Mitchell H. Pally, vice president of legislative and economic affairs for the Long Island School Board Association.

"We want to make sure the school districts understand the impact of rising taxes on the ability of business to compete."

It is an approach that the Amherst Chamber of Commerce has just begun using.

"The Chamber was more objective and less personally involved in the budget process," said Colleen DiPirro, chief executive officer of the Chamber.

Williamsville, Erie County's largest suburban school district, was one of 10 in the county that saw budgets go down to defeat this year. The district is one of only two -- the other is West Seneca -- that will return to the polls next month to vote on a revised budget proposal.

That wasn't what Williamsville trustees originally had in mind.

After voters in May defeated the original $103 million budget proposal -- with its 8 percent tax increase -- the board reacted by adopting a $101 million contingency budget that excluded high school athletic programs and field trips, among other things. The board then put a $756,710 high school athletics proposition on the ballot. It, too, was rejected.

What to do?

School Superintendent Ann Fuqua asked the board to retain the contingency budget.

Parent groups were splintered. Some wanted another sports referendum. Others wanted a referendum that included field trips.

School Board members also appeared split, some concerned with a taxpayer revolt, and others convinced that higher voter turnout would result in passage of the budget.

Enter the Chamber of Commerce, which called for creation of a new budget that chopped $1 million from the contingency plan, while restoring sports and field trips. The revised $101.4 million budget proposal -- carrying a bottom-line decrease of $150,000 -- is about $2 million less than the original proposal rejected in May.

But to many taxpayers, it is a first move -- one small step taken by administrators who have vowed to spend the next year working with the community to quell a rebellion.

Despite a recommendation from the superintendent, the School Board went along with the budget-revision proposal and ordered the administration to come up with the cuts.

The new budget proposal will be on the ballot Aug. 20.

Why did it take Chamber of Commerce involvement? "Boards think very hard before sending a budget back to voters," Pape said. "I would call it a radical departure. Anyone who said they were not being responsive is silly.

"The staff takes a budget defeat personally. Defeats are hard on boards and staff. By putting a budget to another vote, they are playing with fire. Another vote may wear the resistance down, but you can also fire them up."

Ms. Fuqua said the board already had considered putting a new budget before voters when the Chamber introduced its plan.

The Chamber, however, focused beyond high school athletics to offer a more inclusive proposal, supporters say.

"It wasn't just sports vs. taxes," Ms. DiPirro said of the Chamber's approach. "They were taking away extracurricular activities from students but keeping in-service programs and conferences for staff. The School Board had no choice but to respond."

The board, however, has not yet decided on where to chop $1 million. The Chamber suggested reducing money spent on staff development and conferences. More recently, the Chamber has suggested that the district look into the cost of its community education program, as well as supplies and Internet fees.

"We will be looking at staffing, conferences and staff development," Ms. Fuqua said. "Obviously, those areas will not go unnoticed when we begin our work."

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