The Clarence School District has begun its 2014-2015 budgeting process in earnest. Two budget study sessions have already taken place – one in late January, and another one just last night. You can get the handouts and agendas through this link.
It’s important to mark your calendars. Although next year’s budget is expected to increase town school taxes at or below this year’s cap (about 3.16%), school opponents are already clamoring for a smaller increase, if any. Also expected to be contentious will be an aging school bus fleet and whether the school should outsource school bus services to a private entity.
Part of the problem is that state aid to Clarence has plummeted in recent years through the “Gap Elimination Adjustment“. The GEA began in the state’s 2009-2010 budget as a way to reduce a $10 billion state budget deficit. The state decided to do fix its own mess on the backs of schoolchildren. In actual practice, it acts as another unfunded Albany mandate, requiring districts to rely more on local property taxes to fund school personnel and programs. Each year since 2010, Clarence has lost between $2.4 and 4 million in state aid that was due and owing.
Districts like Clarence are especially affected, because we are a high-income district; we have very few kids on subsidized or free meal plans. Since 1980, state aid to school districts has increased on average by 4 – 7%. Clarence is slated to get a 1.4% increase in aid next year. Schools are being required to do more with much less.
Mr. Hicks outlined enrollment projections for the next several years, with the high school anticipating some stable numbers before a modest drop, but with the elementary school level seeing a drop of about 400 students, or 10%. The district has a task force that is studying how to address this issue. Its findings are not expected to be released until after the April budget vote.
The 2014-2015 Clarence Central School budget is expected to raise school taxes at the tax cap, which is expected to be 3.16%. The projection includes dipping into $400,000 of fund balance, but that number is expected to decrease at a level commensurate with any increase in state aid Albany’s budget is ultimately enacted. By doing this, the district will be able to maintain all personnel and programs that we currently have. CSEF will not need to raise money in 2014-2015 to restore anything, and will be able to fulfill its mission of assisting the district by raising money for scholarships and capital expenditures.
In order to restore personnel and programs that the district had prior to the 2013 budget fiasco, an additional $1 million or so would need to be found or raised. Spending is expected to increase by only 2.46%. Here’s what’s happened over the past few years:
An average home value in Clarence is $200,000. The tax increase on that average home, should this budget be passed, would be $78.00 per year, or $6.50 per month – about the cost of two cups of coffee. Since 2011, the district has fired 113 people, saving $8.2 million.
In addition, Mr. Hicks noted (and graphically showed us) the aging bus fleet, and stated that the board would put forward a proposition to finance the purchase of 12 new vehicles. The last successful bus proposition passed four years ago. 14 buses are at the end of their life-cycle and need to be replaced, and another 35 are almost there. As these buses age, they become less economical to operate due to the maintenance needed to keep them on the road.
Here are the challenges for school proponents, as we see them now:
1. The bus proposal. It is likely that the anti-school groups will agitate against passage of this bonding scheme – one which would cost the average $200,000 household $4 per year for 5 years – that is 33 cents per month to ensure safe, modern buses for the town’s schoolchildren. A recent letter to the Clarence Bee recommended privatization of bus services. Here are the problems with that:
- as it stands now, the transportation department hires local people to drive our kids to and from school. That means that local money is paid to local people who, in turn, spend their money locally. It’s a win-win.
- maintaining a bus fleet gives the district control over its transportation needs, and offers flexibility.
- there exist locally only two private bus companies, so there isn’t much competition to drive prices down enough to justify a change.
- there is no guarantee that a contract with a private company would result in any palpable cost savings.
Because $1 million is an easy number to wrap one’s head around, this is a ripe and easy target for the anti-school folks to rally around. It’s easier to relegate kids to dilapidated buses than it is to take away music and sports. One person asked Mr. Hicks about the “empty buses”, and Mr. Hicks referred to it as the “myth of the empty bus”. The buses transport kids, and sometimes they’re near the beginning or end of a run, or en route to a run. None of our transportation dollars are being squandered.
2. The Freeze/Rebate. Governor Cuomo has proposed that households earning under $500,000 will receive a rebate equal to the increase in school taxes, provided the increase is within the cap.
In year two (2015-16), school districts must continue to stay within the tax cap and must develop a plan for sharing or consolidating services and eliminating duplication and overlap. The shared plan must achieve, in the aggregate, an amount equal to at least 1% of the participating entities’ tax levy in the year following the second year of the credit (2016-17). This percentage increases to 2% and 3% in subsequent years.
3. Estimates. At the January budget meeting, Mr. Hicks estimated that the tax cap would be about 2.5%, and worked under that assumption. As the numbers were calculated to 3.16%, these estimates were adjusted accordingly. The anti-school people appear to be making noise about supporting only an increase equal to or less than the 2.5% estimate given in January.
4. Ancillary Issue: School Board Election. People are lining up now to run for the school board, and three seats are up. This is going to be critically important to watch.
What do we need to do as parent-taxpayers?
1. Attend meetings. PTO, regular Board of Education meetings where you are entitled to address the board at least twice, and these budget workshops – you have to go. You have to watch what’s going on, and who’s saying what to whom.
2. Organize. Last year, we organized too late and we didn’t have the tools we needed to maintain the quality of our schools. The anti-school forces were emboldened by this, and they appear poised to nickel and dime the schools into mediocrity over the cost of a large double-double at Tim Horton’s per month.
3. Tell a friend. It’s not just us parents who are concerned – everyone should be worried. We have high property values in part because we have a school district with a good reputation. That suffered terrible harm last year, but a pattern of such behavior would invite irreparable damage.
4. Write a letter to the Bee. The people who seek to weaken our schools can’t spread misinformation to an informed public.
5. Keep an eye out here.