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District adjusts to double budget defeat; Cheektowaga-Sloan is now on contingency plan

Cheektowaga-Sloan Superintendent James P. Mazgajewski was expecting a backlash, after voters in the school district narrowly approved a budget last year that raised taxes more than 10 percent.

What he got may have been more like whiplash, as voters twice turned down budgets with modest spending and tax increases.

"The people came out to vote, they got their choice," Mazgajewski said. "We'll give them what they want."

Now the school district, with an enrollment of 1,500, is one of only two in New York State forced to adopt a contingency budget that does not collect a penny more in taxes than the current budget. Oppenheim-Ephratah Central, a rural district in Fulton County with 365 students, is the other.

"My biggest concern is if this type of thing happens a couple years in a row, the doors are closed," Mazgajewski said.

The last time the district operated with a contingency budget was in 2000. The 2001 budget was the first one in five years to be adopted on the first vote, and living with uncertainty "used to be a way of life," said Mazgajewski, who has been superintendent for 30 years.

With nine days left in the fiscal year, it has been difficult to schedule a special meeting when all board members will be available to adopt a new budget. Mazgajewski said board members are planning to meet July 2 to reorganize for the coming year and adopt the changes then, if a special meeting can't be arranged next week.

To get the tax levy down to a zero increase, another $150,000 in a combination of increased revenues and cuts will have to be made.

"We'll find it, and we'll live with it," he said.

Teachers agreed to a wage freeze several months ago. Since last year's budget cut eight full-time and four part-time positions as well as 28 clubs and four sports, Mazgajewski said there is a willingness on the board to look to other budget lines that won't directly affect students. There also is some money in reserves that will be used, he said.

He said money left over from recent budgets has been rolled over and used in August to reduce the tax rate. State auditors frown on that practice, but this year, in particular, those extra dollars may be saving programs during the school year.

There is about $2 million in that category, he said. Some of it was already targeted to reduce the tax rate.

"Now we'll be eating into that as we go along," he said.

All the belt-tightening is leaving little wiggle room in case of an influx of students requiring expensive services this summer.

The first budget of $33.26 million increased spending 0.75 percent and the tax levy 1.25 percent, the maximum allowable under the tax cap. It was defeated, 52 percent to 48 percent, May 15.

Just to make sure the School Board and superintendent got the message, an additional 208 people checked the "no" box Tuesday for the second budget, which used $30,000 more in fund balance to reduce the tax levy.

"We went up a lot last year; I didn't have a whole lot of hope this year," Mazgajewski said.