Due to cuts in state aid, increases in employee entitlement costs and a steady drop in enrollment, the Cazenovia Central School District’s preliminary 2013-14 budget includes a nearly 5 percent tax levy increase and the elimination of five or more staff positions in the middle and high schools.
The proposed tax levy would increase the tax rate on a home of $200,000 taxable value by about $198 per year. The district’s recommendations were based on the need to fill a $450,000 shortfall in the school district budget.
These details, plus an explanation and breakdown of budget specifics, were presented to the Cazenovia Board of Education during a public hearing on Monday, March 18, at which more than 60 community members were in attendance. Numerous residents spoke out fiercely against the proposed staffing cuts — particularly regarding one high school social studies teacher — many suggested or demanded cuts come from other budget aspects and some even suggested higher taxes than proposed in order to prevent the layoffs.
“We’ve been working on this [budget] for about three months. It’s not a pleasant task to pare this down but this is basically what we’re going forward with next month [for school board approval],” said Board of Education President Fritz Koennecke.
District administrators and board members have been preparing the new budget since January, with an initial projected budget deficit of $650,000. Recently tabulated savings in utilities costs, as well as three newly-announced staff retirements have lessened the budget gap to $460,000, Superintendent Bob Dubik told the board of education at its Feb. 25 meeting. This figure was reiterated by William Furlong, assistant superintendent for business and finance, at the board’s March 4 public budget meeting.
The current preliminary budget, proposed at the March 18 meeting, is a total $26,197,000 budget with a $510,410 (or 2 percent) increase in revenues but a $644,848 increase in expenditures.
Furlong reviewed for the public audience the numbers and events that led the district to its current budget status, which were due primarily to $5.6 million loss in state aid over the past four years, a 40 percent increase in employee retirement costs and a continuation of declining enrollment district-wide. The “significant” enrollment decrease, specifically, is what has driven the decision for the proposed staffing cuts, Furlong and Dubik said.
Current district numbers show enrollment has declined from 1,817 to 1,540 total students in Cazenovia during the past 10 years, which has been accompanied by a teacher reduction from 149 to 138 since 2007. The smaller elementary school class sizes beginning in about 2002 have now reached the high school level, which has prompted this year’s proposal to eliminate positions in the middle and high schools, Furlong said.
The proposed staff cuts include one cleaner position, one fifth grade position, one sixth grade position, one high school social studies position and one high school guidance counselor position. Four of these five cuts will be through attrition, but the one high school social studies teacher position will be a layoff. These cuts will save the district $307,000, Furlong said.
This still leaves a $134,000 shortfall, however, and if the state does not restore some of its eliminated aid in its upcoming budget — which as of press time had not been released — then the district will have to look at cutting two additional staff positions: one bus mechanic and one Family and Consumer Services/food teaching position, Furlong said.
The district’s “guiding principle” when considering budget reductions has been to keep or enhance academic and extracurricular programs that “area source of pride and set us apart from other school districts,” Furlong said. To that end, the district has been reducing for the past four years as many unnecessary or extraneous budget items as possible without reducing core staffing or programs, he said.
The cuts undertaken during the past three years — mostly extracurricular — have been relatively easier than this year, Koennecke said. “But this year we’re cutting the flesh and not the fat,” he said.
Public comments during the hearing were composed primarily of concerns and criticisms about the proposed staffing cuts, with residents asking why more extracurricular items and activities are not being targeted instead of teachers. Some specific suggestions were to reduce more athletic programs and funding, more administrative or clerical jobs or get rid of “unnecessary” expenditures such as the “Blue and Gold” newsletter which mailed free to every home in the district.
Resident Susan Morgan said that having good buildings and grounds in the district is nice, but without quality teachers the buildings “mean nothing — they do not make the difference.”
Resident Dan Morgan said cutting staff “flies in the face” of the district’s guiding principle and the proposed cuts of core teachers are “totally irresponsible.”
A number of Cazenovia High School students also attended the meeting, with about half a dozen speaking out against the proposed elimination of Social Studies teacher Mary Ann Lonergan, who was characterized by numerous people as one of the best teachers in the district and a life-changing mentor and role model for her students.
“This is not about personalities,” Dubik said. “New York state education law and teacher contracts dictate that layoffs are determined by the least senior teacher. We don’t have a choice on that.”
A few attendees asked why the board does not simply increase the tax levy above the 4.93 percent, saying they would be happy to pay more in taxes if it meant keeping quality teachers in the district. School board member Karen Marris said it’s not such a simple decision, and that the board has to “be sensitive to all income levels in the community.”
Furlong added that going above the state-mandated tax levy cap is also not that simple. He said the district has also been hampered by the state’s tax cap legislation, which does not allow the district to go above the currently-proposed 4.93 percent tax levy increase without a 60 percent majority override vote by the public during the May budget vote. If the district proposes a higher tax levy than that — say a 6 percent levy increase, which would add another $150,000 to the budget — and the budget is defeated, then, under state law, there must be a second public vote.
If the second vote fails, the district would lose the 4.93 percent increase and be allowed a 0 percent increase under the law. This would mean the district would not only lose the $450,000 gap-fill from the proposed increase, it would then have to add another $785,000 to its deficit because of the loss of tax revenue, which would equal a $1.2 million budget gap. This would require even more and harsher budget cuts than are currently being proposed, Furlong said.
The public budget discussion lasted more than one hour, with numerous questions, criticisms and proposals asked and offered by community members. Marris reminded everyone that what was presented was only the preliminary budget proposal, and nothing has been finalized yet.
“This is only an administration proposal. We want to take everything into consideration. We’re taking a very close look at all this,” she said.
The school board will take a final look at the proposed budget at its regular April 22 meeting, and vote whether or not to adopt the budget at that time. There will then be a public budget hearing on that proposed budget on May 14, followed by the public budget vote on May 21.
More information on the district’s proposed 2013-14 budget, including specific numbers and explanations of the state tax levy cap, district budget trends, enrollment and staffing trends and key budget assumptions on the district’s website, caz.cnyric.org/2013-14-budget.
Jason Emerson is editor of the Cazenovia Republican. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Jason Emerson is editor of the Cazenovia Republican and Eagle Bulletin newspapers.