Niagara Gazette

April 25, 2013

Niagara-Wheatfield adopts budget with 5.91 percent tax increase, sparing kindergarten, sports and music - for now

By Timothy Chipp
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — WHEATFIELD — Appeasement may be the easiest way to quell a riled up crowd of people, as Niagara-Wheatfield school board members found out Wednesday.

Facing a room of about 200 parents, grandparents and students looking to rip into a recent decision to explore eliminating kindergarten districtwide, officials adopted a spending plan with zero cuts to its youngest grade.

Instead, officials closed an estimated $1 million budget gap by cutting even more teachers one year after slashing more than 40 instructors in the worst planning session Niagara-Wheatfield has faced in more than a decade.

“The members of the board of education will not be cutting kindergarten to either half day or fully eliminating it,” board President Steve Sabo said. “Kindergarten will be fully funded in the budget which we put before the public on May 21. I know that this is the answer that so many of you are in attendance to hear.”

Wednesday’s action led to the adoption of a spending plan for 2013-14 which increases district spending by about $2.3 million, to $62.8 million, by proposing a 5.91 percent tax levy increase.

The increase in taxes is the maximum percentage Niagara-Wheatfield is allowed under New York’s property tax levy threshold cap, due to exemptions school districts are allowed to factor into cap calculations.

But the focus of the audience was still on kindergarten, unsafe another year unless voters approve the district’s proposal at the polls May 21. Sabo said the budget proposal relies on the tax levy increase to provide whatever programs are left, including kindergarten, all sports and music and art programs district students have excelled in locally and state-wide.

Sabo said cutting kindergarten, brought to the public eye last week, wasn’t something he or the rest of the board members took lightly.

“Contrary to what’s said, we’re not a bunch of people who go home and say ‘Let’s have some fun and cut kindergarten,’” Sabo said. “I have a son there right now, I see the growth the children experience at that level. We know the affect cutting it will have and we don’t want to do it.”

If the budget doesn’t cut kindergarten, music or sports, three non-mandated programs the district explored chopping to balance its budget, where did the $1 million come from? A combination of teacher retirements, reductions and layoffs will balance the plan, according to interim business manager Richard Hitzges.

Hitzges said the district can find about $415,000 in retirement savings alone, including eliminating one teaching position through attrition. Also cut is the ninth grade level of popular high school program Project Lead the Way, a pre-engineering sequence of classes designed to prepare students for college classes.

Instituted in 2010-11, Project Lead the Way is expected to save $79,000, eliminating one teacher.

There will also be two elementary level and the equivalent of two middle school teachers also eliminated, along with six teacher aides, three cuts to the transportation department staff, a cleaner and several monitors.

“The budget is a balanced budget,” Hitzges told the board before it was adopted unanimously, 7-0.

With a budget finalized at the board level, all that’s left is for the public to vote. Many of the board members called on the public attending the meeting to cast a ballot and convince their neighbors and friends to do the same.

Board officials said a failure to pass the budget would put all non-mandated programs, including kindergarten and sports, on the potential chopping block. Sabo said there’s a list of six items the district can turn to, including those areas, to close what could be an additional $2 million.

Board member Christopher Peters said the public has the ability to decide what the board cannot.

“We need people to show up in droves,” Peters said. “You need to go and vote. We can’t affect a lot of this budget. We don’t have that much affect. About 80 percent of our budget is contractual. All we can do is play the cards that are dealt to us. The state’s put us in this position, we don’t have a choice.”

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