By Timothy Chipp
Niagara Gazette — Niagara-Wheatfield School Board member Christopher Peters has a fear he shared with a captive audience during the board's latest meeting Wednesday.
He said despite the school's financial and operational outlooks for the 2013-14 school year, he's worried the budget he and his colleagues are due to adopt in the next few weeks will fail when voters hit the polls May 21.
Though not finished, the plan is expected to continue the district's recent trend of hitting taxpayers hard in the pocketbook. Officials are still preparing to present a 5.91 percent increase to the district's tax levy, the figure the district cannot exceed under this year's property tax threshold.
But Peters' fear is rooted in a lack of attention from the general public, with small crowds listening to the meetings and very few taking in what's talked about via the district's online streaming option.
"Nobody's here to get the message," Peters said. "This is the one time people get to vote on their own tax increase. And who votes for their own taxes to go up? Normally, it's some politicians deciding to just increase taxes. It's just a shame they attached this to quite possibly the one good thing in people's lives, which is your child's education."
Planners are still dealing with a financial shortfall in preparing the 2013-14 spending plan, even after New York state adopted its budget last week. The district received approximately $300,000 additional state aid in the actual formulas compared to what Gov. Andrew Cuomo presented in February's executive budget.
But the extra money isn't good enough locally, as officials have to close a $1.4 million – a number developed based on Cuomo's proposal – gap. Coming off last year's more than 60 layoffs, the gap could be devastating a second year in a row.
So, school board President Steven Sabo said, what's left is extremely popular non-mandated programs which make Niagara-Wheatfield special. And once they're gone, there's going to be a lot more questions to answer, he said.
"Our list of those things we can cut are kindergarten, music and sports," he said. "We can't raise class sizes anymore, because there won't be enough teachers to offer any programs for our kids to take. We might as well call up Niagara Falls, Lewiston, Starpoint and North Tonawanda and just disperse our students there. We won't have a school."
With no increase to the district's tax levy, though, the district would need to close a more-than-$3 million gap, effectively eliminating all of those non-mandated items, including elementary music, varsity and junior varsity sports and full-day kindergarten, Sabo said.
How did Niagara-Wheatfield find itself in such a desperate situation? Unlike last year's debacle, which was created through questionable accounting practices, much of this year's increase is driven by rising unfunded mandates New York has passed down the ladder.
Contributions to health care and the teacher and employee retirement systems have all led to increased costs which the state doesn't provide money to offset. But the biggest blow to Niagara-Wheatfield's finances is the Gap Elimination Adjustment.
Conceived by then-Gov. David Paterson following the housing market bubble burst prior to the 2008 presidential election, the GEA was an attempt to close the state's multibillion-dollar deficit by taking a percentage of each of the state's school district's foundation aid, the most common form of state money schools receive.
Niagara-Wheatfield is scheduled to pay back $3.4 million of its state aid next year, after returning $4.6 million in this year's budget. Combined, the district has returned approximately $17 million in money it could have used since the GEA was instituted four years ago.
"The state's saying we can't give you what the formulas should provide while it's also limiting what we can have the taxpayers provide (under the state's tax cap)," Interim Business Manager Richard Hitzges said. "There would be no conversation (about a budget gap)."Contact reporter Timothy Chipp at 282-2311, ext. 2251 or follow on Twitter @timchipp.