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A 1999-2000 school budget overview from Sweet Home Superintendent Gary R. Cooper "strongly suggests" that any tax rate increase not exceed 1.8 percent.

"We hope to be at or somewhere around the rate of inflation," Cooper said after a budget study meeting Tuesday. The meeting is the first of five such sessions scheduled through mid-March.

A 1.8 percent tax increase would represent a spending increase of $1.2 million, up 2.9 percent from the 1998-99 spending plan of $40.9 million. But Cooper stressed that all figures are preliminary.

The superintendent briefly outlined several budget priorities, including adding two elementary teachers to reduce class sizes at the second-grade level at Willow Ridge and Heritage Heights elementary schools.

Other plans would increase a psychologist's position from a 0.6 to a 0.8 of full-time; hire three more special education aides at the elementary level and a fourth district computer technician; and allocate $150,000 for a new science initiative.

In an outline of revenue projections, James P. Sheehan, assistant superintendent for business, said he expects operating aid, the district's largest chunk of state aid, to remain at $8.4 million. And he budgeted about $2.5 million from sales tax, roughly the same as this year.

Sheehan also projected a $60,000 increase in state aid for Board of Cooperative Educational Services programs; a $42,000 decrease in investment earnings; and about $29,000 in repair aid, the same as last year.

Sheehan also discussed preliminary figures for special education, noting that the 2.25 percent increase, from $3.9 million to $4.03 million is the lowest he can recall. He said the increase for the current year was 7 percent.

The adjustments in the special education budget are across the board, said Sheehan, noting decreases in the area of BOCES tuition and increases for private placement costs and instructional salaries.

Trustee Margery Baumler asked if there will be more money for the district's prekindergarten program, which began last fall, but Sheehan said there has been no word. "I think there will be a push for more pre-K money for cities, and we'll be on the coattails," he said.

The board's next session from 8 a.m. to noon Feb. 6 in the high school will focus on teacher staffing, enrollment and summer school programs.

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