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Spending increase of less than 4% sought

The Tonawanda City School District has nearly completed its proposed budget for the coming school year, but officials still see a huge question mark: the amount of state aid the district will receive.

Administrators laid out the proposed $29.2 million budget Tuesday for the School Board and the budget advisory team.

Officials made a few changes in the initial draft of the budget, lowering the budget-to-budget increase to slightly less than 4 percent.

But to hold down the increase in the tax levy, the district hopes to receive more money from the state than Gov. George E. Pataki has proposed.

Right now, Tonawanda is on track to receive the same amount of state aid as last year, and under the current budget plan, that would require a tax increase of 11 percent.

But Peter Michaelsen, assistant superintendent of finance, said the district might receive an additional $100,000 to $500,000 from the state, which could hold the tax levy increase to 5.96 percent.

Michaelsen reported that the area's state legislators have said the district will receive more money.

But if state aid falls short of expectations, the district might need to make more cuts to the proposed budget. Even with an additional $100,000 in state aid, the current proposal would require a levy increase of more than 10 percent.

"There's quite a variance and uncertainty about the revenues," Michaelsen said. "I'd like it to be the $500,000 number, but I can't tell you that. We have to have a budget that passes, because there are too many good things happening in Tonawanda to let state aid change that."

Superintendent George Batterson said he believes even a 5.96 percent tax increase isn't as bad as it sounds. For the owner of a home assessed at $60,000, a 5.96 percent increase would mean paying an additional $64.78 a year.

"We can't control how much revenue we get from the state," Batterson said. "We can only control our own costs. We are a victim of the state."

Administrators already were making changes in the proposed budget by freezing hiring and cutting projected retirement expenses, saving $50,000.

The district now plans not to replace four of seven retiring teachers because of decreased enrollment. The move will save the district an additional $136,000.

The increase for health insurance, however, rose to nearly 17 percent from 10 percent, costing the district $179,000. Michaelsen attributed the increase to greater than expected employee use of insurance benefits.

"It's unfortunate," Michaelsen said. The district is hoping to have a better idea of its final state aid number by April 11.

The School Board must adopt a budget by April 24, or the proposed plan would take effect automatically.

The district scheduled a public hearing on the budget May 9.

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