In recent years, school budget season in Chappaqua has been a glum occasion, with austerity being the prevailing mantra. While the district's preliminary proposed 2013-14 budget continues with that trajectory, the district will see some fiscal relief.
The budget, unveiled Wednesday night at the school board's meeting, calls for spending $114,828,088, an increase of 2.34 percent ($2,625,200) from 2012-13. It includes a 2.4-percent tax levy increase ($2,423,624), while it results in a net cut of 12.39 jobs that will be done through a mix of layoffs and attrition.
The budget stays under the state's required tax levy cap, which is around two percent, because of exemptions such as changes to the district's tax base, along with paying for capital project work and some pension costs.
There is also good news for the district in the proposal. State aid will rise by $456,576, or 7.37 percent, which will provide a more robust non-property tax revenue source. Meanwhile, the school district's new union contract with the Chappaqua Congress of Teachers will bring in $500,000 of savings versus what would have been appropriated if terms of its old contract were still in effect; state law requires old terms to be in force for expired deals and the current agreement is due to end in June.
Special education services are also set to drop by more than $400,000 because of graduations of four students needing out-of-district support.
“We're in very good shape," Superintendent Lyn McKay said, noting that the district will keep academic programs such as high school electives.
McKay acknowledged lean times continue, but that the district is holding up.
“We are tighter, but that we know,” she said, adding that they “will be okay.”
As in previous budget years, soaring employee benefits, particularly state-mandated pension contributions, are a key cost driver. Employee benefits, in total, are due to rise by $2,443,590, or 9.8 percent. Assistant Superintendent for Business John Chow explained that this includes a hike of around $2 million for the teachers' pension fund, along with a rise of about $280,000 for the fund for non-teaching staff. It also include a health insurance cost increase in the $300,000 range.
Out of the job cuts, 8.9 positions will come from teachers, while 4.09 will come from non-teaching positions. There will be an addition of 0.6 of a physical education teaching job. Out of the cuts, 8.39 jobs will be from layoffs, while four will come from attrition, Chow told Patch. If the cuts remain the same as proposed, the district will have eliminated more than 100 jobs since 2009.
Still unknown at this point is the tax rate, which is the number owed, per $1,000 of assessed property value, by taxpayers. Preliminary numbers will not be available until April, Chow said, will final numbers set for the summer. One thing Chow does know, however, is that there will not be a large gap in the tax rates between New Castle and Mount Pleasant residents in the district, which has come up in recent years. The gap is the product of a formula called the equalization rate, which is used to apportion each town's share of the taxes and has a role because the towns do not assess their properties at the same percent of their market values.
Overall student enrollment is projected to go down by 53 kids. This includes a possible drop of 36 at the elementary level, a fall of 27 at the middle school level and a rise of 13 at Horace Greeley High School. In general, class sizes are projected to remain about the same as they are now.
The board's initial reaction appeared to be one of receptiveness.
“It's really a tremendous amount of work and a lot of thought," board President Victoria Tipp said about effort.
Even with the good news, however, there was still acknowledgement of the district's challenges.
McKay was upfront about the job cuts of recent years having an impact, saying “we have to be realistic” about what happened.
The board, pre-emptively, also discussed a question that members noted has been raised by residents: what about cutting administrators?
Tipp felt the district is "pretty lean" on administrative jobs, while Chow said the current headcount is necessary because of factors such as handling security. Some board members added that officials also have more work because of the new teacher and administrator evaluation system that was created because of a state mandate.
Public comment was civil, with folks who have attended board meetings for previous budget years returning.
Robert Fleisher asked why the district's pension mandate hasn't been eased, since the market has improved recently; a guaranteed financial return is required, and the district must make up the difference if the market is weak. Responding, Chow noted that a 5-year average is used, which includes a weak earlier period.
Judy McGrath, who is a member of the BEST4NY group that publishes for state mandate relief, felt that budgets should come with historical explanations to provide more context and information.
Wednesday's meeting is only the first in what will be a nearly 3-month process. The school board will hold more in-depth meetings on certain budget topics. They are curriculum and technology on March 6; special education and athletics for March 13; maintenance and operations, fund balance and non-instructional for March 20; and tax rates, revenue and a contigency budget scenario on April 3. The board is set to adopt a budget on April 17, which it needs to send to the voters for approval. A referendum will then be held on May 21.
There will be several public outreach events for the budget. They include forums sponsored by the Chappaqua PTA on March 5, at 9:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. at Robert E. Bell Middle School, along with question-and-answer sessions at Seven Bridges Middle School on May 9, at 7:30 a.m. and 9:30 p.m. In addition, the school board will hold a hearing on its adopted budget on May 8.
A copy of the budget presentation is attached to this story as a PDF file.