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Grand Island School Board members, unanimously approving a $30.9 million 1998-99 budget Monday, praised Superintendent Paul D. Fields for last-minute fiscal tinkering that eliminated almost $1.3 million from original budget plans.

Under the streamlined version adopted by the Board, Grand Island residents will see a 2.2 percent tax rate increase next year -- about an extra 56 cents, to bring the tax rate to $25.58 per $1,000 of assessed valuation.

"I think this budget is really a commendable thing," said Board President Richard J. McCowan.

Trustee Susan Gill said she would oppose "cutting one more penny out of it."

"You've done all you could, and more," Ms. Gill told Fields.

The budget includes $650,000 in spending for capital improvements, the last phase of a five-year improvement program at the district's Ransom Road campus. Included in the capital improvements funding next year will be sidewalks, wiring for technology programs, an all-weather track, and the renovation of the district's multiple tennis courts.

In addition, the budget includes an increase of about $30,000 in spending for textbooks and the restoration of an enrichment reading program -- designed to improve speed and comprehension -- that will be taken by all seventh-grade students at Veronica E. Connor Middle School, Fields said.

The budget will also hold the line on field trip spending, said Fields, noting some opposition to cuts in trip spending that were made in the current year's budget.

In cutting the budget down from the original proposal of about $32.2 million, Fields said, spending was reduced in areas that include plant operation and maintenance, contracted supplies and materials, and teacher retirement contributions.

Teachers in the district will receive contracted raises of 2.95 percent next year, the last year of the union's current three-year contract with the district, he said.

In total, the 1998-99 budget package will increase total budget-to-budget spending by about 5 percent over the current year, Fields said. In contrast, the 1997-98 budget of $29.6 million included a 5.8 percent tax rate increase over the previous year, Fields said, even though expenditures increased only 1 percent from 1996-97.

Challenges to maintaining a tight budget have included a growing student population -- up 247 students in the past seven years -- and decreasing state aid, Fields said.

This year, the district was also hit with a drop of about $8 million in reduced property tax assessments, he said.

"This really is a very tough budget," Fields said. "It's very bare bones. It's going to be difficult to administer."

Now that the budget package has gained School Board approval, the district-wide public vote on the School Board's proposed budget will take place May 19.

The next meetings of the School Board will be held April 21 and 27, both at 7 p.m. in the Little Theater of Veronica E. Conner Middle School. A budget hearing for members of the public will be held May 11 at 8 p.m. in the cafeteria of the Huth Road Elementary School.

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