MAHOPAC, N.Y. - Under the current proposed 2019-20 school budget, property owners face a 1.71 percent increase in their tax bill; however, school officials caution that could change as they continue to crunch numbers.
Under the proposed budget, a home valued at $300,000 would see a tax increase of $117 for the year; a $400,000 home would see a $156 jump, and a $500,000 house would rise by $195.
The proposed $122,650,141 spending package actually saw expenditures decline by $670,868 compared with the 2018-19 budget, school officials said.
“That’s a very good sign,” said Harvey Sotland, assistant superintendent for business affairs.
A host of reasons triggered the decline in expenditures, Sotland said.
“One of the big drivers that did help us this year was the Teachers Retirement System (TRS). The rate at which we pay into that system went down close to 1.5 percent, which is huge,” Sotland said.
But School Superintendent Anthony DiCarlo said that is likely to be a one-time thing and apply to just the 2019-20 budget.
“It’s probably just for this year because it’s all based on what happens in the stock market, so it’s cyclical,” DiCarlo said. “You might have a good year and then two or three bad years. It fluctuates year to year.”
But DiCarlo said the reduction in expenditures was much more than the decrease in the TRS contributions. He gave kudos to Sotland for digging deeper.
“Mr. Sotland, being new, really went through each and every item to see our expenditures over the last number of years and what we’ve spent, and he really tried to clean those lines up,” DiCarlo said. “It’s also why the budget-to-budget figure is less. He’s done a great job with his own forensic auditing of each line.”
Sotland said revenue as a whole is up about $380,000, though state aid dropped off this year.
“State aid is down about $1 million, largely due to building aid,” he explained. “There is a variety of different kinds of aid we get from the state—different categories—and one of them is building aid, which represents the state’s reimbursement to us for our percentage on some capital projects. But the [bottom line is] there is a positive number as a whole. If you take out building aid, we got about $215,000 more in 2019-20 than we did in [the last budget].”
At the school board’s March 28 meeting, DiCarlo presented a four-year strategic plan for the district, which included an array of long-term goals. He said the proposed 2019-20 budget reflects those goals.
“What we are trying to do with this budget is encapsulate some of the strategic plan that we want to do,” he said.
He laid out some of the expenditures in the proposed budget that reflect the strategic plan.
“We want to put a full foreign-language program in the middle school, which has been lacking for almost a decade and a half,” he said. “We are the only ones that I know that doesn’t offer full foreign language in seventh and eighth grades. This year, we piloted it, but next year we want to make it a reality.”
Also, the budget calls for kindergarten and first grade moving to the Readers Workshop model as part of a three-year plan,
“That will [level] the playing field across our district, K-5, in reading instruction,” he said.
The budget also calls for adding a guidance director to oversee guidance for the entire district.
“We are really adhering to a lot of what we want to do as a district moving forward that really lines up with the strategic plan of how we want our kids to be academically ready to meet the challenges of the 21st century,” DiCarlo said. “We all worked hard to try to be fiscally responsible but also continue to bring Mahopac where it needs to be academically, socially and emotionally.”
The proposed budget also remains under the state-imposed cap on the tax levy (the total taxes collected).
“The tax levy increase is 2.1 percent, but we actually could have gone as high as 3.42 this year,” Sotland said.
Sotland presented a chart showing the tax levy increases for the past five years, which average out to around 0.5 percent annually.
“Unfortunately, that’s just not sustainable,” he said. “The cost of living, health insurance, utilities, things like that—much like a household—we have the same increases to deal with. We tried to keep it as low as we could.”
DiCarlo noted that expenditures also include recently negotiated union contracts.
“We entered into a lot of MOAs (memoranda of agreement) recently,” he said. “It was zero, zero, zero [pay increases] for a lot of years, but there are contractual obligations with our unions—the biggest being the teachers union. For many years they had taken zeros (in salary increases). In our negotiations last year [they received raises]. That’s the cost of doing business. All that goes into what the [budget] numbers are.”
When district residents go to the polls to vote on the 2019-20 budget on May 21, they will also have the opportunity to vote on a $53.9 million tax-neutral capital improvement project.
“Tax neutral is the key objective,” Sotland said. “We are expected to start work in spring 2021 with 58.1 percent state aid. It will be tax-neutral as a result of current debt being paid off when this new debt comes on.”
Key aspects to the capital project are:
• Create STEAM facilities and renovate science labs
• Convert libraries to modern multimedia centers
• Renovate music and performance areas
• Improve athletic fields and energy efficiency
• Enhance building security and safety