Citing expanding program demands, rising enrollment, and the continuation of unfunded State mandates, School Superintendent Dr. Frank Alvarez presented budget recommendations for 2015-2016 …
By Sarah Varney, Tom McDermott, and Robin Jovanovich
Citing expanding program demands, rising enrollment, and the continuation of unfunded State mandates, School Superintendent Dr. Frank Alvarez presented budget recommendations for 2015-2016 that would necessitate overriding the tax cap and a 5.1% increase over last year. The proposed budget is $83,411,000, compared to $79,365,200 for the current school year. It is worth noting that if the tax levy exceeds the District’s tax levy limit, the support of a supermajority (60% or more) of voters is required for budget approval.
“I think we’re at the point where we need to do this in order to maintain the excellence of our schools,” said Dr. Alvarez at the February 24 Board of Education meeting. Board Vice President Katy Keohane Glassberg added, “It is time to invest at the appropriate level if we’re going to preserve the level of quality in our school system.”
The projected budget, which will be discussed further at upcoming Board meetings and voted on by the community May 19, uses $1.5 million from the Reserve Fund, and includes full-day Kindergarten, the addition of several high school teachers and, technology upgrades. In the budget, $286,000 is set aside for the Smart Schools Bond initiative, which will be reimbursed by the State at a future date.
Salaries and benefits constitute 77% of the proposed budget, with a total expenditure of $64,246,292, an increase of $1,954,856 over this year. While employee/retiree health care benefits can be negotiated to some degree in contract, the budget anticipates an increase of 4.25% in 2015-2016.
The District forecasts revenue of $700,000 from the Utility Tax that was voted in last year, $3,125,000 in State aid, and $71,728,392 in property taxes.
Earlier this week, we sat down over lunch with Dr. Alvarez, School Board President Laura Slack and Vice President Glassberg, and Gabby O’Connor, Assistant Superintendent for Business, to discuss the Board’s goals and needs for next year.
“For the last several years, the District has been conservative while remaining out in front in academic quality,” said Dr. Alvarez. “We had three primary aims: maintain excellence; make no further cuts to staff; and advance key educational initiatives. We’re also trying to address issues of enrollment.”
Slack said it was important to note this is “not an optimal budget. No teachers are being added in the elementary schools. In some of the sophomore math classes, we have 30 students. The District guideline is 18 to 22. We’re at maximum class size at all the schools.”
Two of the largest increases in next year’s budget are Special Education, 44%, and Transportation, 58%. “The increases are related,” said Slack. “BOCES no longer provides transportation services. As our enrollment has grown, so has our Special Ed.”
Is this the year to institute full-day kindergarten? “We have this one opportunity to do it. We may not be able to do it later,” said Dr. Alvarez. “Other than Edgemont we’re the only district in Westchester that doesn’t have it. Teachers asked for it. It’s a true developmental program.”
Glassberg added that full-day kindergarten would allow enough time to do the program without kids feeling rushed. “When we interviewed candidates for Superintendent, every one of them thought we should have full-day K.”
The estimated cost of a full-day program is $260,000, according to O’Connor.
Will residents be in favor of a 5% tax increase? A 2% increase wasn’t sustainable, said Glassberg, and it’s important to note that, historically, Rye had 5.5% increases in many years.
Slack explained that with mandates going higher and higher, enrollment up, and the District receiving less in State aid, the Board doesn’t have many options if it hopes to maintain excellence. Of the 39 districts in Westchester and Putnam, Rye is 29 in terms of teacher compensation. “We’ve made a number of efficiencies and maximize the use of teachers.”
The District’s goal is to follow the Massachusetts model, said Slack, making an adjustment every four or five years as needed. “The Board doesn’t think we’ll have an every year.”
Board members pointed out that our legislators, State Senator George Latimer and Assemblyman Steve Otis have been very vocal in their opposition to unfunded mandates.
Slack continued, “The tax cap is so flawed for school districts. We have 151 unfunded mandates. I don’t think Albany understands the degree of peril districts like Rye face. The Governor now wants us to pay for an outside evaluator. We already pay our administrators to do this. How is a SUNY professor going to evaluate what we do? Rye tests well. We rank high with college admissions. Why would we need to prove what we are doing?”
After our meeting with the Board March 2, Dr. Alvarez wrote us with a few more thoughts as we head into the budget season.
“I want the taxpayers of Rye to be aware of the burdens the State of New York has placed on the Rye City School District, and thus directly on the backs of Rye taxpayers.
“At the top of list is the tax cap. The tax cap sets the amount the School District’s budget can increase at 2% or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower. This year the cap is set at 1.62%. In many Districts where enrollment is decreasing, fewer students mean fewer teachers. In this case, a tax cap doesn’t present such a problem. But Rye is a District where enrollment is surging – an 18% increase since 2005 – and the tax cap does not permit the District to raise additional revenues to cover the expense of educating more students.
“Another financial burden is the loss of state aid. The School District is currently receiving state aid at a significantly lower level than we received in 2007-8, at the beginning of the financial crisis. Moreover, as the result of the Gap Elimination Adjustment, the State now owes the Rye City School District $2.2 million, which it has withheld.
“Our District, like every other district in New York, is also laboring under an incredibly expensive retirement system mandated by law by the State of New York. The New York Teacher Retirement System and Employee Retirement System contribution costs have ballooned in recent years, going from $2.5 million in 2009-10 to $6.25 million (projected for 2015-16). These costs are not exempt from the tax cap. It’s interesting to note that other states with tax caps have opted to exempt pension costs.”
The public is encouraged to attend the next two School Board meetings — March 10 and 24, at which the upcoming budget will be first and foremost on the agenda.