Niagara Gazette

May 14, 2013

Lew-Port board optimistic spending plan that exceeds tax cap will be approved by voters

By Timothy Chipp
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — LEWISTON — School district elections are Tuesday, which leaves the Lewiston-Porter School Board little time left to reflect on the decisions it's made concerning its $40 million 2013-14 spending plan.

The budget exceeds the property tax threshold for next year, meaning voters will need to provide a supermajority of 60 percent support at the polls in order for it to pass.

Board President Jodee Riordan is quietly confident the proposal will receive the support it needs, because unlike in Niagara-Wheatfield last year, there has been very little negative chatter throughout the community, she said.

"I'm very hopeful our community will come out to support the budget, to support education," she said, following the district's mandated public budget hearing Tuesday. "Our issue is not with spending. It's with income. The state leaves us no place else to go. We've done everything we're supposed to do and we're still here."

Only a handful of residents were in attendance Tuesday, quiet following the last regular meeting featuring hundreds of concerned citizens creating a standing room only board room.

With an approval from voters, tax rates would be guaranteed to go up for both Lewiston and Porter residents. But the size of the increase, Riordan said, isn't as dramatic as the tax levy increase percentage may lead everyone to believe.

Compared to this year's levels, a Lewiston house valued at $125,000 would see an estimated increase of $113 under the basic exemption, while the same value house would see a tax bump of $52 under the enhanced version, reserved for senior citizens.

Porter residents with a basic STAR exemption would pay an additional $69 next year on a $125,000 value house, while the enhanced exemption will charge an additional $59.

"When you take into account the enhanced STAR exemption, it really isn't that much," Riordan said. "We're hoping they see this increase as an investment in the future. And with all due respect to those who are on fixed income, my income isn't fixed at all. At any minute I could lose my job, my husband could lose his job. We have four kids to support. We're laying off a bunch of people and they live here, they have families to support. There's not a lot of good things in this budget."

The spending plan does do its fair share of cutting positions in addition to raising taxes, eliminating or reducing 29 positions heading into next school year. Part of a four-year slash in staffing – mainly accomplished through attrition until the current year's budget called for layoffs – the plan affects several programs throughout each of the district's four buildings.

Superintendent Christopher Roser said the cuts to both teaching staff and the aides will cause dramatic differences, even with a tax increase over the state's levy limit.

"There will be a lack of flexibility," Roser said. "It will cause some kids to be forced to not take some of the classes they'll want to take. And the big one which has everyone from teachers to support staff worried is the aide situation. They are the ones who fill in the cracks of the wall. We'll be cutting them which means less of them. We've reduced our funding for substitute teachers, meaning if teachers call in sick, there will be classes canceled and kids will be taken to the cafeteria. It's not the ideal situation, but it's what we have to deal with."

The district is where it stands not because of spending too much, officials said Tuesday. What ails Lewiston-Porter is actually the revenues it is receiving. Following the implementation of then-Gov. David Paterson's gap elimination adjustment to aid to schools from Albany in 2009, the district has been unable to collect more than $9 million.

Roser said continuing to take money from the state level only cause a double-sided issue for the district and every other school district throughout the state. It's like being caught between a rock and a hard place, Roser said.

"You just can't take $9 million from a $40 million budget and not expect something to happen," he said. "We've been living in our budget, in our means, since it was created. We've spent money from our unreserved fund, which was $1.8 million. We've been reducing staff. But we couldn't do it anymore."

Contact reporter Timothy Chipp at 282-2311, ext. 2251 or follow on Twitter @timchipp.