Belt tightening could be severe should June 19 school budget vote fail to get simple majority
With a little over a week until voters take to the polls to determine whether the amended school budget for Floral Park-Bellerose School District (FPBSD) passes or fails, the district’s board of education held a budget hearing on Monday, June 11. Not quite as packed as the prior informational meeting regarding the proposed budget and revote that was held on Tuesday, May 29, this assembly reviewed the proposed amended budget, the cuts being made in order for the FPBSD to have its tax levy come under the 4.11 percent tax levy cap and the differences that will be caused by a contingency budget should the amended budget get voted down.
The state requires a 4.11 percent tax levy limit to be submitted in order to avoid needing a super-majority vote to ensure budget passage. The amended projected tax levy for the 2012-13 proposed amended budget that was approved by the board of education at the Tuesday, May 29 public meeting is 2.47, well under the cap, meaning a simple majority vote guarantees the budget passing versus the supermajority that was needed during the May 15 vote, when the tax levy was slated to be 4.86 percent on the original proposed 2012-13 budget.
Fiscal Restraint, Amended Budget Cuts And Built-In Costs
FPBSD school superintendent Dr. Lynn Pombonyo started the presentation by pointing out that, despite annual increases, the district has gone out of its way to keep its budgetary margins tight.
“We have spent less per student than any [of the other 55 districts] in Nassau County in a decade. We spend about $15,000 per student on average, [versus] the top-spending district, which is around $30,000. That is 37 percent less than the average school district in the county,” she explained. “There are 10 other elementary districts that are similar to us in terms of size. They are K-6 districts that average about $19,000 a year per pupil. Again, we spent 22 percent less than the average elementary district. Certainly, when it comes to the expenditure side of the budget, many boards have worked with superintendents and business officials to keep this budget in its low position throughout the county at least during the past decade.”
For the initial portion of FPBSD Business Administrator Michael Fabiano’s presentation, he went over appropriation cuts for the 2012-13 proposed amendment budget that were divided into two categories: operational (renovation and repairs) and personnel (staff reductions). One hundred ninety thousand dollars was eliminated via appropriation cuts that include removing appropriations for the failed transportation referendum ($70,000), reduced appropriations for facilities renovation and repairs ($20,000) and a reduced transfer to capital for state-aided capital projects ($100,000). Proposed personnel-related appropriation cuts came out to a total of $393,182 due to staff reductions. The cuts would be the elimination of three teaching positions including benefits ($255,000), two special education teacher aid positions per IEPs ($42,182) and a part-time nurse position including benefits ($40,000) as well as replacement savings on teacher retirement ($56,000). All these appropriation cuts come out to a total of $583,182.
The cuts that garnered the most attention were the ones applied to personnel. Dr. Pombonyo stated the main priority of the original budget vote was to maintain class size of 26 and lower. Proposed staff cuts of three teaching positions, (one of which was in a specialized science lab), two special education teachers, a part-time nurse position and savings on teacher retirement were made with the notion of addressing shifting needs.
“Our annual review of the special education program showed us that we might be able to decrease two special ed teacher aide positions because of program changes with those children. It’s not an effort to curtail special ed services at all,” she assured. “We [also] have a special area subject teacher who has recently informed us of her plans to retire and replacing her will be a savings too. We are not doing something that is going to take away the science program from any child. It’s an aspect that’s valued, but again we’ve made some difficult choices to bring down the budget and the tax levy.”
Fabiano further added that certain components of the budget are costs mandated to the district, primarily contributions to the employee retirement system and the teacher retirement system, items the district has no control over and that cannot be renegotiated. He also added that retirement system contributions and health insurance premiums have increased over 8 percent. The question posed by Floral Park resident Mary Ann Norton was whether there was any cost sharing on the part of the teachers on health care premiums and how much these contributions might be.
According to Dr. Pombonyo, “All of our employees pay into the health care premiums paid to the health care programs. It ranges from many of our civil servant workers, like custodians paying as little as 10 percent. Our teachers and administrators have been paying around 20 percent for the past three years which comes out to about $3,600 a year. It is one of the highest levels of contributions that exists right now in Nassau and I am sure as the premiums have gone up, boards of education all over are asking employees to consider that as part of negotiations.”
Contingency Budget Ramifications
Should the proposed 2012-13 amended budget fail to pass on Tuesday, June 19, a contingency budget would go into effect. What this means is that the district would be required to levy no more than it did in the prior years—a zero percent increase. The proposed tax levy increase of 2.4 percent, or $513,000, would have to be eliminated according to Fabiano. Among the items on the chopping block would be the likely elimination of the pre-K program. In addition, the $300,000 set aside for state aid capital projects, such as needed masonry work on the Floral Park-Bellerose school would be eradicated.
“This is part of the $3.4 million that was approved by the bond referendum that passed on May 15 going towards an overall $3.7 million for capital projects,” Fabiano explained before pointing out, “That’s the down payment on the bonds for the following year, so that would produce other problems going forward and it would also reduce future potential building aid. Our other state-mandated restriction would be that we would have to charge for the use of buildings and fields.”
Tax Woes and Voter Outrage
While the annual FPBSD tax levies may be on the conservative side, they are part of an annual tax increase that includes home assessments, village and Town of Hempstead tariffs that are making it increasingly difficult to afford to live in Floral Park-Bellerose. Longtime Floral Park resident and former teacher Chris Schneider decried the fact that his overall tax bill rose from $5,200 a year to $6,000 this year. It’s a bad enough situation that when he received a village tax bill for $100, he was actually relieved at the amount. But he assured the board that these untenable increases would eventually drive longtime residents away from the area.
“I stand here before you tonight with mixed feelings. I was a teacher here for 33 years and I don’t want anybody losing jobs. I get the value of education, the kids and community. But on the other hand, I have my note here [that shows an increase of] $800 in one year. I figured out that if you continue to do that to my household over the next ten years, that’s $8,000 plus the $6,000 I’m paying now, that’s $14,000, now plus the village taxes and Hempstead taxes, I’m out of here,” he said. “And after 50 years of living here, I don’t think that’s right or fair. You can’t give me an $800 [increase] every year for the next ten years. I don’t want to leave this town but [I will] if you give me $15,000 or $20,000 [more in taxes] over the next few years.”
As was the case during the May 29 meeting, administrators pointed toward unfair assessments and an unbalanced distribution of high tax aid from Albany as being the main culprits. Fabiano’s explanation was that although Nassau County has really stepped up assessments, the process hasn’t been done in an even-handed manner. And while assessments on the average Floral Park home a few years ago was down 6 percent, a person adding an extension to a house could theoretically end up with a 4 percent increase, resulting in a home being worth 10 percent more relative to a neighbor’s home. Add on a 2 percent tax levy and that hypothetical resident could end up with a 12 percent tax increase.
With all this confusion about irregular assessments and higher-than normal taxes, Norton pointed out that Floral Park’s problems might be addressed at the polls later on his year.
“This is more of an FYI, but I don’t know if people are aware, but Floral Park has been redistricted for their assembly seat. I think this gives an opportunity as a community, because we’re going to have two brand-new faces in front of us on the Democratic and Republican ticket, to have forums and speak with them and let them know that this community is very, very interested in getting its fair share of education dollars from Albany,” she explained. I think this is a golden opportunity and that all of us have the chance to meet these people and get our point across that this financial burden is hurting our community as we’ve heard from the few people who spoke tonight. We all know that there’s a lot of money up in Albany that doesn’t come our way that should. So again, two new faces are going to be in this election in November and I hope we have an opportunity to get our point and concerns across as a community.”
Whether or not constituents will show their displeasure toward local representatives at the polls in November remains to be seen. For now, the most immediate lever-pulling will be next week, when the school district budget revote is be held on Tuesday, June 19, from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. at JLCS and FPBS.