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Spending increase in budget stirs concern

A contingency-level budget for the Lancaster School District next year would bring with it a tax levy increase of about 6 percent, School Board members learned Monday night.

District officials are keeping a nervous eye on Gov. George E. Pataki's state budget proposal, which calls for homeowners to get a $400 tax rebate if their school district keeps its spending increase below 4 percent.

"If our budget is above the [4 percent] cap and our taxpayers won't get the rebate, my gut feeling is our budget isn't going to pass," said board member Joseph Maciejewski.

It remains to be seen what Pataki's proposal will look like in the final state budget, which legislators are supposed to adopt by April 1.

In the meantime, Lancaster and plenty of other districts are trying to figure out what it would take to keep their spending increases below 4 percent, which is roughly the contingency level.

Many districts are finding that, even if they remain within that cap, taxes are still likely to increase in the neighborhood of 6 percent, about twice the rate of inflation.

Lancaster Superintendent Thomas J. Markle on Monday presented a preliminary budget that bears an 8.5 percent spending increase and a tax increase that could be double that. He was quick to point out that he did not support the budget as it stood.

"In light of the governor's proposal and the potential impact on taxes, I don't believe this is an acceptable budget level," Markle said.

The preliminary budget includes some staffing increases, including six elementary teachers, a middle school music teacher, four special-education teachers, a speech therapist and a school psychologist. It also calls for two new administrative positions, an assistant special-education director for the district and an assistant principal at the high school. If state aid remained flat, the budget would increase taxes as much as 17 percent, Markle said.

He proposed two sets of cuts, each of which would trim about $900,000 from the $73.6 million plan. Even after those cuts, and after factoring in the additional $1 million in state aid proposed Monday by the Assembly, the district would need to trim about $700,000 more to reach the contingency level.

Several board members expressed interest in reaching that level. The feeling was not unanimous, though.

"I don't think we can run a budget based on a rebate program that might or might not exist," said board member Lorraine Bona. "I don't know that it's a responsible budget to say, 'Let's cut so everyone gets a rebate.'"

The board decided to reschedule its March 27 meeting for April 3. It's possible that by then, the state budget will be in place, giving the district more solid information on which to base its budget, board members said.

At the April 3 meeting, Markle will present two more rounds of cuts, each trimming about $350,000 more.

e-mail: mpasciak@buffnews.com