Niagara Gazette

June 11, 2013

Niagara-Wheatfield breaks down tax hits in $62.4M budget up for vote next week

By Timothy Chipp
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — With a week to go before a second — and final — budget vote for the Niagara-Wheatfield School District, administrators and school board members have handed the proposed 2013-14 spending plan off to the taxpayers for approval.

After the original $62.8 million plan failed at the polls in May, school board members and district administrators created a new, $62.4 million budget, while reducing its proposed tax levy increase from 5.9 percent to 4.5 percent

Residents have known this for weeks. They've also known the plan makes significant reductions to an already depleted teaching staff which has seen 112 positions cut since 2011-12 despite somewhat steady enrollment figures. They've seen it eliminates support staff in and out of the classroom, eliminating five teacher aides and several more monitors.

What they hadn't seen was how much those cuts would hurt their pocket books.

According to district calculations provided during Tuesday's mandatory public hearing for the proposed budget, a Town of Niagara homeowner would be charged a tax rate of approximately $28.88 per $1,000 assessed valuation, a $1.24 increase from the current year. Wheatfield homeowners in the district will pay $24.38 per $1,000 value, a $1.05 jump.

Lewiston ($20.58 per $1,000 value) and Cambria ($16.88 per $1,000) residents will see increases of less than $1 per $1,000 value.

Non-homestead taxpayers, which include business property owners, would see their taxes increase by $1.67 per $1,000 value in the Town of Niagara, $1.43 per $1,000 in Wheatfield, $1.19 per $1,000 in Lewiston and $0.97 per $1,000 in Cambria.

"From the residents I've talked to, the reaction has been mostly positive," Board President Steve Sabo said. "They said we've made progress cutting costs. There's also been some concerns. But there's been more positive. They've said we've made it much more palatable for people to accept."

Residents in attendance Tuesday took the opportunity to ask questions of the board and administrators pertaining to the budget proposal. The plan calls for the elimination of one clerical position beyond the cuts to aides and monitors, while eliminating part time social studies, science, English Language Arts and art teachers at the middle school.

One resident questioned the district on why only one clerical job will be lost to the cuts when teaching positions and aides were eliminated. Interim business official Richard Hitzges said the district doesn't have any more extra clerical positions to remove.

"There's been reductions across the entire school organization," Hitzges said. "In previous years, we've cut our clerical staff. In the administration building, there are empty offices."

Another topic broached by residents was the state's pay-to-play ban, which dictates the school district must fully fund a sport's participation if it chooses to provide it during the year.

Sabo, himself a girl's soccer coach at North Tonawanda High School, said the rules aren't friendly to the district, but protect it from litigation.

"What if you make the team but (another person) doesn't," Sabo said. "But you both had to pay for trying out. (That person) can't recoup that money at all, and didn't make the team. So (they) sue to get it back and it becomes litigation.

"Trust me, there's a lot of things we'd love to make up our own rules for to do our own thing. But we have to follow what New York state says."

With all the talking done, voters will have the last say in the matter, as polls open from noon to 8 p.m. Tuesday in the adult learning center of the district's high school, 2292 Saunders Settlement Road, Lewiston.

If it's turned down like the one proposed last month, the district will be forced to adopt a contingency budget, which mandates the tax levy equal the current year's figure. A lack of an increase, officials said, would force the district to make $1.3 million in cuts beyond the ones already proposed.

It's a task, Sabo said, that is tricky. And it likely would involve reducing to a half-day kindergarten.

"New York state tells us we have to provide a quality education," he said. "We have to balance what cuts we make with what we offer."

"Now with the second budget vote, that's it," Hitzges added. "If it is approved, we have a budget for next year. If it is defeated, we have a lot of work to do."

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