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Niagara Wheatfield parents get hard education on budget issues

Parents at West Street Elementary School were told Tuesday that taxpayers in the Niagara Wheatfield Central School District are facing a tremendous property tax increase in the upcoming budget.

Surprisingly, the reaction was not shock and anger but mostly understanding and support.

About 100 residents attended the fifth budget workshop presented by the School Board and were given details of the "worst case scenario" for 2012-13 that included massive layoffs, widespread program cuts and sizable tax hikes.

The presentation was a hard education in what happens to a school district that loses state aid and federal stimulus money, refuses to increase taxes for five years and balances its budgets by depleting fund balances.

David P. Cirino, a parent of two grade school children from Alder Creek Drive, said he came to the meeting prepared to fight any proposal of a tax increase.

After seeing the PowerPoint presentation shown by interim School Superintendent Kerin Dumphrey and an outside financial consultant, Richard A. Hitzges, Cirino admitted he was ready to push for an increase.

"Now I'm ready to pay more," he said.

His attitude, along with those of many others, was perhaps changed by the numbers on the screen in the cafeteria.

Estimates show that the district will need almost $65.4 million next year to run the schools. That amount could be $2.6 million more if various projected cuts do not go through. After collecting all revenues, the budget is expected to be nearly $8.3 million short.

A three-pronged reduction proposal included the elimination of nearly 61 teaching positions, 5.5 administrative and confidential staff, four guidance counselors and a resource officer.

Also cut would be bus purchases, all late transportation, modified sports, high school and middle school co-curricular activities, arts in education, prekindergarten, reading programs, and more than a dozen other district programs or classroom systems that are classified as non-mandated.

"We got behind the eight ball when we could of, and should of, raised taxes," said Dumphrey, whose regular position is school business executive. "I tried to tell them there was a cliff coming."

Even after all the cuts and layoffs, the district would still be $2.3 million short, officials said. To cover that gap, taxes would need to go up about 8.5 percent, according to district figures.

However, the state tax levy cap forces the district to keep the increase at 2 percent unless it can establish other factors into the formula such as increases in property value, bond payments and retirement contributions. The case for Niagara Wheatfield would allow the cap to go up to about 5.7 percent, Dumphrey said.

The board voted to authorize Dumphrey to petition the state for the higher cap. If the district needs to go even higher, the budget would have to be passed by a "super majority" or 60 percent of those who vote.

Many of the speakers asked the board to get out more information to the community so residents would be aware of what is at stake and what is the cost. Some suggested putting more information on the district website such as the actual impact on taxes in dollars instead of percentages, clear details on cuts and layoffs, and a media blitz of letters and news reports.

"We need to know how much this will cost and how much we will pay in taxes," said parent Gina Terbot. "We have to get the word out, and we have to market this."

Board President Steve Sabo told the parents they could help by "getting people to come out" to the meetings. The board is scheduling meetings nearly every week throughout the district before the budget vote in April. He said he would try to get the meetings streamed on the Internet or website for those who could not attend.

The next meeting is set for Monday, with a budget discussion to begin at 6 p.m. in the Adult Learning Center on Saunders Settlement Road.