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Too high? Too low? Just right?

Highland school district holds Budget Forum

by Megan Labrise
March 03, 2011 01:17 PM | 0 0 comments | 19 19 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Highland residents discuss the proposed 2011-2012 school budget at a workshop last week. Photo by Lauren Thomas.
Highland residents discuss the proposed 2011-2012 school budget at a workshop last week. Photo by Lauren Thomas.
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Some support 2; some support 4. Some support less and some, more. And many want to reopen teacher contract negotiations. Superintendent Deborah Haab presented two budget increase scenarios -- 2 percent and 4 percent -- for an audience of 120 residents and school district staff at the Highland Central School District Budget Forum held on Tuesday, Feb. 22 at the high school cafeteria. The meeting was also live-streamed on the district website.

A Powerpoint distillation of the previous week’s Board of Education budget proposals presented two scenarios: Proposal 1, a 2 percent levy increase over the $35.8 million 2010-11 budget, with 25 staff cut and programming reduced; Proposal 2, a 4 percent levy increase restoring elements eradicated in Proposal 1. The proposals represent $2.2 million and $1.4 million decreases in operating costs from 2010-11.

The cuts are driven in part by a promised loss of New York State aid due to budget balancing difficulties in Albany.

“You’ve heard some pretty strong statements from our Governor [Andrew Cuomo] about the ability of the school districts to pay for the situation the state is in. We have our own unique situation,” said Haab.

Highland stands to lose $921,544 state educational aid under Cuomo’s 2011-12 New York State budget. That loss alone begets a 4.15-percent tax levy increase from 2010-11. An additional $1,553,394 in fixed cost increases, including retirement benefits, health insurance and shared services with Ulster County BOCES, is needed to maintain current programming. The combined deficit equals just under $2.5 million and would necessitate a 11.15 percent tax levy increase to provide the same level of service next year.

With a double-digit increase all but out of the question for beleaguered taxpayers, the Board of Education charged the District Leadership Team with creating the 2-percent and 4-percent scenarios.

“We’re focusing on meeting the targets and the needs of students,” said the district’s new Business Administrator Stephen Perry. “We’re trying to build on foundational skills for K-12. We want to produce children who are willing to learn during the rest of their lives, who look forward to learning and get excited about it. That’s what’s called educating the whole child.”

Perry presented the numbers to the audience, including the projected increases per $1,000 in assessed property value for each scenario. Under a 2 percent increase, residents pay an additional 35 cents per $1,000, or $70 on a home assessed at $200,000. Under 4 percent, an additional 70 cents per $1,000, or $140 on a $200,000 home.

Relative to neighboring districts, Highland is a conservative spender: It is the seventh largest school district in Ulster County, and operates with the lowest budget by a margin of millions.

That equates with a lack of wiggle room. With 85 percent of the $35.8 million 2010-11 budget in fixed costs -- including salaries and benefits -- keeping rates low means staff cuts.

“Cutting staff is a very painful thing for both the students and the administration. When we reduce our staff, we reduce our ability to educate,” said Perry.

After the presentation, the audience broke into a dozen discussion groups charged with identifying their concerns with the two scenarios and possible cost-saving solutions. Most groups included one member of the Board of Education and at least one administrator.

Town Board member Herb Litts, of Table 7, voiced the conflicted position of many in attendance.

“The general taxpayer feels that they have too much burden right now,” said Litts. “What goes on in these buildings is the future of our society. I’m willing to pay for that. But am I willing to pay 2, 4, 6, 8, 10 percent every single time it comes up? It’s getting very difficult.”

At the end of the discussion period, a representative from each group was asked to write their consensus points on a poster and present their ideas aloud. The posters showed many overlapping concerns: the sustainability of 2- and 4-percent levies, the loss of sports, the loss of elementary music education and class sizes. Solutions included sharing services with other school districts, engaging volunteers and retirees in the schools, restructuring of programs to spread resources across the district in lieu of concentrated cuts, incorporating a booster club to bolster sports and saving energy.

One common solution was asking teachers to make concessions in raises and benefits.

“We’re not in favor of lay-offs and we’re not in favor of reducing programs. We feel it’s Business 101 -- that 70 percent of the budget is in compensation and benefits. We feel we should go to the unions and ask for concessions on salary increases and medical expenses. We feel that we could get over $1 million in just those [concessions] enabling us to save some programs and save some jobs,” said Mark Rizzi of Table 2.

Haab thanked the groups and said that the collected data would be included in the school board’s budget deliberations.

“We appreciate your taking the time to be with us to have these very important conversations,” said Haab. “We all realize that we’re going to have to make some reductions in some areas in order to be able to operate next year and the years beyond. We also believe that this is not going to be a one-year phenomenon.”

The school board’s March 1 meeting will be dedicated to discussing results of the public forum. A workshop dedicated to the 2010-11 budget, which must be finalized by mid-April, will be held March 8.

To view the recording of the Budget Solutions forum online, visit http://www.ustream.tv/channel/highland-boe.

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