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21% tax hike proposed to fill $9 million budget gap

When news of a record 21 percent tax hike proposed for Lancaster schools reached homeowner Gary Howell, he yelped.

"Aye-yii-yii-yiiii," he said, quickly trying to figure out the impact on his $1,600 school tax bill. "Ridiculous. Nobody has that kind of money these days."

So it went Tuesday in Lancaster, a day after the community learned during a public input meeting that rising fixed costs -- mostly for payroll -- and a deep cut in state aid have left the school district about $9 million in the red.

Lancaster Superintendent Edward Myszka said that it was the largest budget gap he could remember and that the tax hike was one of the largest proposed in any of Erie County's larger suburban districts in decades.

He vowed to bring down the tax increase, although he didn't know if he could go lower than the 9.14 percent rise in the tax levy that would occur even if the district goes to a contingency budget in 2010-11.

"That's going to be very difficult," Myszka said.

Making deep cuts is difficult without seriously affecting personnel. Payroll makes up at least half of most school budgets, and hoisting the district's proposed $89 million budget out of the hole by reducing just those costs would result in about a 20 percent hit to payroll.

Closing the gap with pay cuts is hard, as well. It would require digging into employee contracts. Even employees working without contracts -- like Lancaster teachers -- continue to receive pay increases from the previous contract.

Teachers agree in return not to strike. But experts often complain this provision stymies negotiating the kinds of pay and benefit concessions seen in the private sector.

Accepting pay freezes was suggested at Monday's session by Alan Getter, the district's assistant superintendent for business and support services. That would save about $1.3 million.

The suggestion drew no discernible reaction -- even though the overflow crowd was packed with teachers, administrators and other personnel.

"I haven't seen it very often," Getter admitted, referring to pay freezes. "I don't know of [any school district] here who has done it."

It is an unusual turn of events for Lancaster schools, which for years benefited from a town building boom that pumped up enrollment and plumped the tax base.

Last year, there was no increase in the school tax rate. The previous year, it was 25 cents, and before that, zero.

Still, growth has slowed, enrollment is dropping, and 2011-12 looks to be an even worse fiscal year for Lancaster and other districts.

Lancaster school officials already plan about $1.8 million in cuts ranging from eliminating teacher conferences, for a $75,000 savings, to eliminating -- through early retirements -- seven teacher positions.

They plan to raid reserves for $5.8 million, want to delay debt payments and are offering early retirement incentives.

But by the end of the two-hour meeting in the Lancaster High School auditorium, the fiscal picture seemed more unstable than ever.

Two cost-cutting centerpieces of the proposed 2010-11 budget were put on hold. One eliminated the ninth class period at the high school, which is devoted to elective classes. It is unclear how many teaching positions would have been eliminated by ending electives. In any case, the School Board changed its mind after students howled about the cut.

The other item put on hold was closing Central Avenue Elementary School, which has seen declining enrollment. That would have eliminated about 17 positions for a savings of $650,000. The board delayed a final vote until a citizens task group can look for alternatives.

Anyone who wants to join the group can call Pat Burgio, director of communications, at 686-3214. The first meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. April 8 in Room 122 of Lancaster High School.

"We'll work through this," Myszka said after receiving about 50 calls Tuesday from residents wanting to sit on the panel.

Howell, who is a member of a Lancaster government watchdog group, said his sympathy is limited. "This is a tough economy," he said. "Everybody has to cut. Everybody."

e-mail: ncervantes@buffnews.com

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