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$6.8 million budget gap is confronted

Closing a budget gap of nearly $6.8 million for the 2012-13 school year without raising property taxes is one of the most daunting challenges in recent years, city school administrators said Thursday.

As a step in that direction, School Superintendent Cynthia A. Bianco said she is freezing all expenditures, effective next Thursday. She said that all expenses will be especially scrutinized and that no department will be permitted to unnecessarily stockpile any supplies or equipment for future use.

Budget Manager Rebecca Holody gave School Board members the grim news Thursday that next year's projected expenses of nearly $125.3 million will exceed projected income by $6,779,980.

She and Business Administrator Timothy J. Hyland pointed out, however, that the gap could be reduced to just under $4.3 million if the district dips into its rainy-day fund to withdraw $2.5 million.

Bianco told the board that she will submit about four separate suggestions next week for bridging the remaining gap. The suggestions will range from a worst-case scenario of drastically reducing expenditures to a preferred scenario of finding ways to increase the district's income.

Other suggestions will fall between those two possibilities, she said.

A principal way of increasing income is to lobby for more financial aid from the state. Bianco said she and other school administrators are holding a series of meetings with state legislators from the region to try to obtain more money from Albany.

Bianco and the nine-member School Board are on record in opposition to increasing the local property tax rate to cover the shortfall. If they are successful, 2012-13 will be the 19th consecutive year in which there has been no school tax increase in Niagara Falls.

The school tax rate is $18.896 for each $1,000 of assessed value, or a total of $1,043.06 a year for the average home assessed for $55,200.

Details of the district's increasing costs, including pay raises of 1.8 percent for nearly all employees and the soaring cost of health insurance, were reported last week by The Buffalo News.

The board hopes to adopt a recommended budget by March 29 and to submit it to a public hearing May 3 and to a referendum May 15.

email: rbaldwin@buffnews.com