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Ken-Ton district faces $1.9 million budget gap but isn't planning to hike taxes

The Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda School District has been in dire straits for the last few years, forced to close and consolidate schools, lay off staff and raise taxes.

Its proposed budget for 2017-18 is showing some progress toward fiscal stability, with no increase in the tax levy planned.

But the district's budget has a gap of $1.9 million. District officials are hoping for an increase in state aid so they can close the gap.

Part of the reason for the budget shortage is the district is planning to spend money on a wish list of changes: adding five science teachers, one for each elementary school; full-time program supervisors, rather than part-time, at each elementary school; summer school classes for all grades, including elementary and middle schools; and replacing 25 retiring teachers with new teachers.

School Board members said they favored adding the new teachers to give each of the five elementary schools a dedicated science room and teacher to meet the new science learning standards mandated by the state. Without the new science teachers, the district would have to provide training and equipment for every elementary teacher in the district.

Assistant Superintendent of Finance John Brucato said state aid is not keeping  up with payroll, health care and other costs. Even without the wish list,  there would  be a $1 million gap, he said.

The first draft of the $160 million budget for 2017-18 was discussed during a special Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda School Board work session on Tuesday. Budget development meetings will continue on March 28 and the budget adoption meeting will be on April 4.

Brucato said the state has set a zero tax levy cap for Ken-Ton, which means if the board attempts to raise additional funds through taxes above the cap, it would need approval from 60 percent of the voters, a super majority.

Brucato said there's ways the district can close the budget shortfall without raising taxes, including a long-term lease of Roosevelt Elementary school, identifying additional savings in departmental budgets and using reserve funds to plug the gap.

"We are trying to be creative and enhance our programs without placing that burden on the taxpayer," said Brucato.

He said if the district receives additional state school foundation aid or state aid to offset lost tax revenue due to the closing of the Huntley Power Plant, it may be able to close the gap without touching reserves.

This past year Ken-Ton received $2.2 million in special assistance from the state to minimize the impact of the Huntley Power Plant closing. That equaled about 80 percent of what the district had been receiving annually from the Huntley plant. The state fund is expected to pay the district 65 percent next year, but Brucato said these funds are not guaranteed and cautioned that the district cannot rely on these funds or they could find themselves caught in the middle of the school year with a "pretty sizable deficit."

He said the district built up a healthy reserve fund in preparation of the Huntley plant closing and should be able to cover the gap. But part of the district's goal after consolidating schools was to rely less on spending the reserves.

In 2016-17 taxpayers faced an average increase of 3.98 percent in Ken-Ton school taxes, with the average taxpayer paying about $1,994 on a $100,000 home. With the zero percent tax levy this taxpayers' bills could stay the same or actually go down because the valuation of property in the town has been increasing steadily, said Brucato.

In the May 16 budget vote, voters will also be asked to approve a $1.3 million referendum to purchase 14 new buses, as part of the 10-year replacement cycle. New York State will pay for 70 percent of the costs, according to the district.


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