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School districts dealing with budget gaps hoping for increase in state aid

If it seems like budget gaps in suburban school districts are worse than ever this year, that’s because they are.

• Frontier Central is working to reduce a $3.2 million gap.

• Ken-Ton is struggling with a $3.4 million gap.

• Niagara Wheatfield needs about $2.2 million in cuts to get taxes down to the tax cap.

With about five weeks to go before suburban school districts must finalize budgets for voters, layoffs and larger classes are on the table and popular programs like sports, music and foreign language may be in jeopardy in some schools.

Many districts hope for a big bump in state aid.

Superintendents, school boards and parents complain loudly about a paltry increase in state aid and demand a bigger share this year. They won’t know how much they are getting until the state budget is adopted, and district administrators are hoping for an on-time state budget approved before the start of the state’s fiscal year April 1.

State aid is one of two main sources of funding for schools. Local taxpayers are the other, said Orleans/Niagara BOCES Superintendent Clark J. Godshall.

“The governor promised with the tax cap there would be mandate relief,” Godshall said. “We got the tax cap but we got no mandate relief.”

Districts have long argued for relief from the Wicks Law, which requires multiple contractors on most building projects.

They also want relief from another state mandate, the Triborough Amendment, which requires the payment of step increases after union contracts expire.

Without those reliefs, districts will do what they have been doing the last five years, Erie 1 BOCES Superintendent Donald Ogilvie said. That means staff reductions, program elimination and belt tightening. But many already have done that, leaving little wiggle room.

“It’s a much more difficult strategy to implement now than five years ago,” he said.

Districts are constricted in raising taxes to make up the difference, because of the state-imposed tax cap. It’s a complicated formula based on the cost of living. To raise taxes above the cap requires approval from 60 percent of a district’s voters.

Last year, only a quarter of the budgets statewide seeking to go above the tax cap passed with the necessary 60 percent vote in May.

That leaves districts trying to stay within the cap, which is based on the lowest cost of living index yet.

Wilson Central heard the voters loud and clear last year, when they said no in two budget votes and the district had to operate on a contingent budget this year. They are pinching pennies, and next year’s budget should also see the savings of the closing of an elementary school.

“We’d like to think we’re prepared for a tight budget,” said business administrator John Montesanti. “We’re very cognizant of the voters last year.”

Clarence also listened to the voters last year, when the district tried to pass a budget with a tax levy increase of 9.8 percent, but voters defeated it.

This year, the budget will not go over the tax cap, Superintendent Geoffrey Hicks said.

Clarence has reduced staff by 113 over the past three years, and plans to maintain all current programs and make no further staff cuts in the future. Hicks also wants to reinstate sports and extracurricular programs to the budget. The programs, cut from the current budget, were restored when community members raised more than $140,000 and donated it to the district.

“We are counting on more money in state aid,” Hicks said. “We’ve built that into the proposed budget.”

If there is not more money, the district will use its fund balance to make up the difference, he said.

“We think that additional cuts to people and programs would be highly detrimental to the education process,” Hicks said.

Williamsville has reduced the proposed budget by $1.8 million, mostly through savings in new labor contracts and retirements, as well as cuts in the technology department.

Hamburg’s budget gap is more than $2 million, and the district is waiting to see how many staff members take advantage of a retirement incentive. The district also has gone through layoffs in recent years, and is hoping state aid will come through so they can be avoided.

“You get to a certain point where an organization can’t sustain deeper cuts,” Superintendent Richard E. Jetter said. “You can only cut so far.”

Godshall thinks they’ve reached that point in the districts in Niagara/Orleans BOCES, where over the last four to five years, a total of 800 positions have been reduced throughout the 13 districts.

Holland can’t raise taxes without going over its tax cap, which is a negative 1.2 percent. But the state allows districts in that circumstance go to zero, Superintendent Cathy Fabiatos said.

“It’s a very tight position we’ve been put in,” she said.

Carrying through the programs this year to next year would create a deficit of $372,000, she said. And even if the district raised taxes, each increase of 1 percent equates to about $69,000 on the levy. The district already closed the middle school and has made cuts in the past.

“Holland has had that doom and gloom,” Fabiatos said. “Our bottom line is the kids. This is our future, yours and my future.”

And she added, “problems are opportunities.”