Education

Modest Increases Proposed in 2016-17 Somers School Budget

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SOMERS, N.Y. - Somers school officials offered a preview last week of the budget on which voters will be asked to render a verdict in May.

Still a work in progress, the proposed budget remains subject to change due to internal discussion, public input and external calculations of things like state aid and healthcare costs. Nevertheless, the broad outlines of a financial plan for the 2017-18 academic year were on display at the Feb. 14 school board meeting.

The budget presentation is available online (for a link to the school website, click here). A vote on the budget is scheduled for May 16, a week after a public hearing on the plan.

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At more than $88 million, the proposed Somers Central School District budget calls for neither major new academic initiatives nor any large-scale cuts in programs or manpower.

Teaching cuts at the elementary level where enrollment is declining, for example, are essentially offset by new hiring at the high school, which has an expanding student population.

A full-time maintenance staffer will be added because, as Kenneth Crowley, the assistant superintendent for business, put it, “things break; things wear out. We need people to fix those things.”

The modest hikes in spending and taxes reflect state-imposed budget restrictions. In both instances they rise by barely more than a percentage point and a half over current-year figures.

Specifically, total spending would increase by $1,323,115, or 1.52 percent over this year’s, to $88,224,866. To pay for that, the district relies principally on property taxes, which would rise 1.55 percent to $160.23 for each $1,000 of assessed value, an increase of $2.44 over this year’s rate.

At this point, tax rates are the district’s best estimates, likely to hold up but requiring Albany’s blessing. The new rate is based on a total property-tax levy of $75,999,382, a presumably tax-cap-compliant increase.

The state’s five-year-old cap limits year-to-year increases in the property-tax levy to 2 percent or a number pegged to the hike in consumer prices, whichever is less. District calculations put Somers’ allowable levy bump at $1,381,504, an increase of 1.77 percent. But even those numbers are subject to approval by State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli. They are due to be submitted next month.

School boards are free, of course, to adopt a budget that exceeds the state’s cap calculations. But in that event, the proposed budget must carry the politically toxic label of being non-cap-compliant and must win approval by at least 60 percent of the district’s voters, not a simple majority.

Like the tax-rate figures, revenue estimates are subject to change. While property taxes finance the bulk of the budget, state aid picks up well over 10 percent of Somers’ school district expenses. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has proposed an estimated aid package of $9,947,019, or some $56,000 less than Albany provided this year.

But the governor’s recommendation, made last month, becomes part of the Legislature’s budget deliberations, which can run through March. Last year, lawmakers scrapped Cuomo’s suggested aid figures and approved a record increase, more than a half-billion dollars statewide, just before the budget’s April 1 deadline. Somers enjoyed a $655,714 windfall as the Legislature did away with a budgetary gimmick that for years has shorted aid to local school districts.

Since 2010, when Albany began withholding a portion of annual state aid under a formula known as “gap elimination adjustment,” Somers schools have been denied some $7 million in aid, district officials say.

At last week’s budget presentation, Crowley recalled the state’s action a year ago and noted, “What they didn’t do was pay back all the money we were entitled to but never received.”

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