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East Aurora schools wrestle? with budgetary challenges

The East Aurora School District already is projecting a nearly $950,000 budget gap – hardly a rosy picture – for the 2013-14 school year, a refrain familiar for many districts looking to go forward under the state's 2 percent property tax cap.

The news is discouraging, particularly since the budget for East Aurora's current school year was fraught with pain, leading to 9.1 staff cuts districtwide – most of them at the high school – along with fewer course offerings.

Playing into the biggest fiscal hits the district is forecasting is a $440,000 increase in salaries, on top of an estimated $543,000 increase in teacher and employee retirement system-related costs.

"That is a big driving force and contractual obligations," said Paul Blowers, school business manager.

Even with a $476,000 reduction in debt service, the administration is projecting a $948,000 budget gap. The district cautioned that the figure is a preliminary estimate and expects to know more concrete numbers in January.

"It's less than it was a year ago," Superintendent Brian Russ said Thursday. "But it's still presenting a significant gap."

East Aurora faced a $1.7 million budget gap as it prepared its budget for the current school year.

"We want to put together a budget that includes all the same current programs right now, look at what revenues we do have, what reserves we have to apply and know state aid," Blowers said. "It's going to be difficult closing it because of all the cuts we made last year. If we're in a position to cut personnel, it will be very difficult to close the budget gap. The budget gap won't be as large, however, [so] the cuts may be more difficult to identify."

Further stacking the budget challenges is a projected spike in health insurance costs of an additional $196,000, as well as a $200,000 increase in expenses slated for special education and Board of Cooperative Educational Services.

In an early budget overview recently to the School Board, Russ highlighted several possibilities to reduce the crunch – including the hope of an equitable teacher contract settlement, savings from employee retirements and turnover, and servicing special-education students in-house, as well as extending the renewal of bond anticipation notes to pay substantially less in interest.

Russ said the key also will be in what the governor's budget proposal shows. "We really need to hear more from the state. State aid is a big factor, in terms of where we set the levy," he said. "Until we get hard numbers, we really can't say what we're going to do."

Initially, the board hopes the budget is developed around a 2 percent tax levy increase.

Board President Daniel Brunson said he would like the board to try to minimize program cuts, given the number and severity that have occurred in the last three years. "But on the other hand," he said, "none of us want to see a tax increase that is burdensome to the community."

The board's agenda for its meeting at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday will contain a budget-related initiative, which Brunson declined to discuss publicly until board members are fully informed of it.