By Timothy Chipp
Niagara Gazette — LEWISTON — A long, stressful, sometimes confrontational budget planning season has come to a conclusion at Lewiston-Porter. At least, administrators and school board members hope it is.
After months of discussion about spending, taxes and what the rural communities can sustain with declining enrollment, the seven-member school board will seek a tax levy increase which exceeds New York state’s property tax cap threshold.
In adopting its budget, board members said they are giving taxpayers the opportunity to fund educational opportunities Superintendent Christopher Roser initially removed from planned 2013-14 spending. Instead, they’ll decide on whether to accept a 5.52 percent levy increase to fund a $40.0 million plan come May 21.
“Nobody here wants to raise taxes,” school board President Jodee Riordan said before finalizing the budget request Tuesday. “But no one wants to lay off 40 people. We have varying degrees of suck this budget year.”
The board adopted the budget plan in a split, 5-2 vote Tuesday, with both Jerome Andres and Molly Lucas casting the negative ballots.
Under New York’s property tax cap law, instituted in 2012, school districts like Lew-Port receive exemptions and formulaic calculations which can allow for levy increases higher than the law’s 2 percent.
For next year’s spending, Lew-Port was allowed a 4 percent increase under the law. Exceeding it means the district must pass its budget by a 60 percent super majority vote next month.
This means a budget which receives 59 percent in favor would fail at the polls this year, a task Roser was hesitant to endorse since January. He flat out told the board he didn’t recommend it Tuesday, but they bucked his advice and did it anyway.
Why? Several programs Roser’s executive budget proposed cutting were important to many of the board members and important to a large number of children in the district. Modified sports, which costs the district approximately $45,000, was on the chopping block despite 150 middle school students participating. That comes out to roughly half of the school’s students.
Sports would be completely funded in the budget, as would the high school’s afterschool assistance program. It was also set to be eliminated to save approximately $31,000, but Principal Paul Casseri said it affects hundreds of students who need a little help completing school work. The adopted budget, if approved, would fund 67 percent of the program.
It also restores full-day pre-kindergarten ($54,000), transportation spending for half of the district’s field trip requests ($13,600) and eight teacher aides who were scheduled to lose their jobs under Roser’s plan ($203,000).
What isn’t restored are the nine and a half full-time equivalency teaching positions Roser proposed cut, a figure he’s reduced from original calculations of 11.5 teachers after cutting more from programs. Before the board’s vote to exceed the property tax cap, he restored a technology teacher and one for business, who will both be teaching technology at the elementary level next year.
“The board and the administration takes our responsibilities to the community seriously, concerning our charge to educate students,” Roser said. “But when you become an administrator or a board of education member, you take your charge for taking care of your employees seriously, too. I’ve always felt strongly about the people we have here. None of this is easy.”
Lew-Port United Teachers President Kevin Jaruszewski, who publicly asked the board to consider exceeding the cap threshold to save jobs, said Tuesday’s action was “bittersweet.”
As a taxpayer in the district himself, he said he doesn’t want to see his taxes increase at all. But the district needs to have programs for students, which were quickly disappearing as Roser sliced his way through balancing out revenues and expenses.
“I said ‘Just put it out there, let the people decide,’” he said. “That being said, we need to educate the community on what this means. We need them to understand why this is happening. That’s a huge piece.”
If voters do not accept Lew-Port’s proposal, the district has two options. It can either try to pass a second budget request with a special vote in June or resort to a contingency budget.
Contingency does not allow an increase to the district’s tax levy from its current level, which would force the district to make more than $1.2 million in cuts from its $40 million plan adopted Tuesday.With Roser, Christopher mug Christopher Roser Not in favor of tax increase Contact reporter Timothy Chipp at 282-2311, ext. 2251 or follow on Twitter @timchipp.