Niagara Gazette

March 9, 2014

Tax increase, staffing/program cuts again on table for Niagara-Wheatfield

By Timothy Chipp
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — It’s become a familiar tale in Niagara-Wheatfield, where next year’s estimated expenses grossly overbear the anticipated revenues despite the possibility of a substantial increase to the district’s property tax levy.

Wednesday marked the third year — and the third superintendent — of delivering the story to the seven-member school board, elected to oversee the financial health of the district.

This time, though, it doesn’t appear the district can get by with massive cuts to staffing like two years ago or a slight reduction in strategic places like this past June’s proposal. Simply put, with those things already done, there’s not enough left to help the district overcome what’s ultimately staring it in the face.

“In years past, you’ve cut deeply,” Superintendent Lynn Fusco said. “This really cuts at the core of what we do as educators. Right now, we’re looking at reorganizing the district. We can’t just keep cutting.”

The district currently faces an almost insurmountable deficit between expected income and projected spending, though the assertion only takes into account preliminary state budget figures. As it stands, the district needs to make enough changes to counter a $3.7 million increase in spending from the current year’s adopted plan of $62.4 million.

This year’s increase is due to, as previous jumps have been, the increased cost of staffing. Contractual pay hikes and an unforeseen mandatory increase in funding the teacher retirement pension contributed $2.5 million by itself. The projected spending even includes a $24,000 reduction in central office spending.

Unless there’s major changes coming from Albany, which officials are begging for and lobbying through several channels, Niagara-Wheatfield has two ways of overcoming its obstacle. It can either raise taxes on property holders or cut spending to bring the figure down to where it meets revenue projections. Likely, the district will end up doing some of both.

How hard will it be for the district to make the cuts, though? Fusco laid out a series of non-mandated items to use only as an example. She listed bus purchases, coaching stipends, club advisors, fifth-grade band and lessons, kindergarten, a restructuring of the buildings and grounds department, chorus in grades three through five, speech, technology reductions, administrative cuts, elementary art and instrumental music instruction, all high school electives and elementary teacher cuts to push class sizes near 30 students per room and still couldn’t get a number matching the deficit the district faces heading forward.

None of the items are being recommended, and one (kindergarten) was eliminated from future discussions with board members saying they recognized the problems from last year’s budget talks and didn’t care to repeat the conversation. But of all the cuts, kindergarten is the most expensive at $800,000 per year.

Some of the other options Fusco mentioned don’t seem feasible, either. Eliminating coaching stipends would end all athletic teams within the high school. Chopping all high school electives would change the educational system entirely, Fusco said, with students only attending to receive basic subject instruction. They, too, are some of the more expensive items on her list at $325,000 and $640,000 respectively.

Making all of the other cuts, the district would only save $1.8 million, according to Fusco’s calculations. This means even with a 4.8 percent tax levy increase, which is the maximum amount the district projects to be able to raise the levy under the state’s property tax cap law, it would still fall short of the $3.7 million needed to balance its budget.

A 4.8 percent increase only provides the district with $1.4 million, meaning $2.3 million would still need to be cut.

In an effort to get answers to much of the questions they have, school board officials are holding a meeting at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the adult learning center of the high school, 2292 Saunders Settlement Road, Lewiston.

“My best case scenario is that the state comes back with whole bunch of money, where something happens to (Gap Elimination Adjustment) and we put up a tax levy increase at 2 or 3 percent,” board President Steve Sabo said. “That would be the best case scenario I’m hoping for. Who knows what’s going to happen.”

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