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Lancaster school budget public hearing sparsely attended

Only a few residents attended Monday's public hearing on the Lancaster School District's proposed 2012-13 budget, which would raise the amount collected in property taxes by 1.88 percent over the tax levy for the current school year.

And just two of them spoke at the hearing on the $91.5 million budget plan, which increases spending by 4.47 percent over the 2011-12 budget.

Whether the poor attendance was a sign of acceptance, or apathy, won't be known until voters go to the polls next Tuesday to decide the fate of the budget and three other propositions.

"It was very disconcerting to look around today and see maybe a handful of people had come," resident Lee Chowaniec said at Monday's School Board meeting, which followed the budget hearing held in the Lancaster High School auditorium.

District officials began the relatively sedate hearing by giving an overview of the budget and explaining why spending and taxes are going up.

Employee salaries and benefits -- and the loss of a $1.7 million, one-time federal stimulus grant -- drove the increase in spending from the current year's $87.6 million, said Jamie L. Phillips, the assistant superintendent of business and support services.

The district made $545,000 in budget cuts, largely because of declining elementary-level enrollment. Those cuts included the elimination of three elementary teachers and 9 1/2 full-time-equivalent staff positions, said Michael Vallely, assistant superintendent of curriculum, instruction and pupil personnel services.

An earlier version of the budget called for a 3.7 percent increase in the property tax levy, still within the state cap of 2 percent plus exemptions and growth -- which for Lancaster was 3.76 percent.

"We're far below that," said Superintendent Edward J. Myszka, who praised board members and district staff for their willingness to "make the hard decisions."

An increase in state aid, to $26.8 million, allowed the district to bring the increase in the tax levy down to 1.88 percent. The tax levy for 2012-13 is projected to be $44.5 million.

The property tax rate for the Lancaster portion of the district would rise by 1.51 percent, or 24 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, from $15.88 in 2011-12 to $16.12 in 2012-13.

The owner of a home in Lancaster assessed at $150,000 would pay $2,418 in school taxes in 2012-13, an increase of $36 over the current school year. The district also includes parts of Cheektowaga and Elma.

Monday's board meeting was tinged with sadness, as board members dedicated the session to the memory of Bryce W. Buchholz, 14, a Lancaster Middle School student killed by an alleged drunken driver while riding his bicycle on Lake Avenue on Thursday night.

Brenda Christopher, the board's vice president, lives near the scene of the accident and said her daughter was a schoolmate of Bryce's. She praised the district's teachers, staff and students for their response to the tragedy.

"We lost one of our Redskins, but now he's an angel," Christopher said.

Bryce's funeral was earlier Monday. Myszka noted that the procession of vehicles passed Lancaster Middle School, and the hearse paused in front of the school for about a minute.

As he described the scene, several board members wiped away tears.

Michael C. Ettipio, 23, of Lancaster, is charged with second-degree vehicular manslaughter, leaving the scene of a fatal accident, driving while intoxicated and failure to keep right.