Tax levy increase held to 1.51 percent
By Michael Mell
The Garrison Union Free School District Board of Education unanimously adopted the 2011-12 school budget presented by Superintendent Gloria Colucci at their April 6 meeting. The $9,321,479 budget represents a 2.78 percent year-to-year increase over 2010-11. Colucci and Business Manager Susan Huetter said that the budget increase will create a tax levy increase of 1.51 percent. Both cautioned, however, that the final tax rate is dependent upon property assessments that will not be available till August.
Board discussion focused more on the nature and use of reserve funds than on any specific budget issue. Colucci explained that the use of money from various reserve funds has been increased. She told the board that the use of these funds, will help to stabilize the tax levy. Colucci also advised the board that reserve funds must be replenished “otherwise they zero out,” which would lead to tax levy increases. Vice President Ray O’Rourke, who chaired the meeting until Board President Carol McCullough arrived, asked: “How much less will be available at the end of [this] school year, based upon what we know now?” Colucci responded that it would be approximately 50-60 percent less than “the previous few years.” Huetter added that every recent budget has seen a reduction in revenue and that she sees “a trend” toward the district having less money available to replenish the reserve funds. If the reserve funds are depleted and not replenished the district would have no cushion for unexpected expenses that inevitably occur.
Trustee Jim Cannon commented that the use of reserve funds is really “borrowing from Peter to pay Paul.” He continued, saying that “the problem with a small budget is that small changes have a large impact” and that the decisions made now will have implications for the future. Cannon conceded, however, that it is “better to have a surplus, rather than a liability” and that “if reserves got used up, we will have no money for any [expense] increases or [state-imposed] mandates.”
Trustee Charlotte Rowe said that the increased use of reserve funds — “pushing the envelope a little” — is acceptable and that she relies on Colucci’s judgment in the matter. The board appeared to share Rowe’s confidence in the superintendent.
The board has been criticized in the past for presenting “tight” budgets that still result in a surplus at the end of the school year. Former budget advisory committee member Betsy Calhoun asked how the district can say the proposed budget is the “lowest possible when there is money left over” [at the end of the year] that is then put into the reserve funds. Colucci answered that the “budget is [always] and estimate” intended “to accommodate unforeseen expenses …” Addressing the unspoken implication that the district has intentionally been creating a slush-fund at tax-payer expense, Colucci pointed out that all budget line items are earmarked for specific purposes. Surpluses result when an anticipated expense does not occur. As an example, she cited the case when a special education student leaves the district. Colucci reiterated her contention that surpluses be placed into the reserve fund to allow them to continue to be a source of revenue for the district. Calhoun disagreed, saying that any surplus should be returned to the taxpayers and asked the board “to think about [the] community more than just the school.”
Piggy-backing on comments made by Calhoun, Joyce Blum, another former member of the budget advisory committee, asked the board whether they could tell her what this year’s anticipated surplus will be. “I would think, with only three months to go, you would be able to,” she said. Huetter was reluctant to provide figures “at a public meeting” without first confirming them. They continued to go back and forth until McCullough noted that the surplus was indicated on the line-item budget that had been distributed at the meeting. Blum also suggested that district contractual obligations should not be viewed as being set in stone. She asked the board to consider this during the next teacher contract negotiation.
Towards the future
Garrison resident David Drotar commented that the board’s use of reserve funds was “savvy” but asked that the community be given a better understanding of “budget infrastructure.” To this end, he suggested a survey to evaluate student trends for the future, with an eye toward future budgets. Blum agreed and asked for more “transparency so the public can understand [the issues] and avoid contentiousness,” something that has been a feature of the budget workshops since they began last year.
Trustee O’Rourke concurred with these sentiments and seemed to welcome the idea of greater community involvement, especially with regard to teacher salaries and benefits, which make up nearly 75 percent of the budget. O’Rourke noted that the Taylor Law imposes restrictions on both the district and teachers’ union, but that the board and community could work together beforehand to establish priorities, goals and strategies. President McCullough suggested that other nearby school district contracts could be reviewed as context for teacher compensation packages.
The evening began with a summary of comments from the four budget workshops held over the past two months. Those comments fell into two broad categories.
Preserve Student Programs and Services:
“¢ Unique programs are valued (don’t cut student instructional services).
“¢ Maintain services and opportunity for students (i.e. sports and co-curricular activities).
“¢ Provide excellence in teaching.
“¢ Offer advanced opportunities and enrichment.
Maintain Stable Tax Rate:
“¢ Use more reserve funds.
“¢ Continue to carefully plan use of reserves.
“¢ Use firehouse [on Upper Station Road] as alternative to construction of new “shed.”
“¢ Seek alternative ways to deliver programs (volunteerism and tapping community resources).