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Tonawanda schools face dwindling fund balances

In years past, the Tonawanda City School District gave residents steady tax rates – and even some decreases. But now district officials say those spending plans, balanced by using the district’s fund balance, have left the schools with little savings.

“We have no safety net,” Jackie Smilinich, Board of Education president, said Tuesday. “We’re between a rock and a hard place.”

Stephen Perry, administrator for business and financial services, projected that the district’s fund balance, which has been in excess of $1 million since 2009, probably will dip to about $750,000 this year. It is estimated that it will continue to drop over the next four years, falling into a deficit in 2015, a $1 million shortfall in 2016 and an almost $1.5 million gap in 2017.

“We don’t have a surplus, period,” Perry said.

It wasn’t long ago when the district adopted budgets with tax decreases or no change at all, but it is likely the Board of Education will adopt a plan for 2013-14 that offers a tax levy increase ranging from 2 percent to 4.5 percent. Board members were provided a list of three options to cut the $30.7 million prospective budget Tuesday, with the most drastic cut of $955,000 to get the projected increase down to 2 percent.

However, the district’s projected fund balance has some board members considering deep cuts while maintaining a higher tax increase, in order to begin accumulating a surplus in the future. “Are we replenishing our fund balance, or are we just moving it to the next year?” asked board Vice President Demelt Shaw.

When surveyed about how much of a tax increase they could propose to voters, most board members answered in the 3 percent range. Several suggested a 3.2 percent increase.

“We haven’t really had a tax increase for the past several years,” said board member Danielle Opalinski. “I think we can push it a little.”

“We have to dig out of our projected deficits, [or] we’re going to be in a heap of problems,” said board member Robert Starr.