While the proposed 2012-13 Chappaqua school budget continues the austerity trend of recent years, talk so far has been upbeat.
In her opening remarks at Tuesday's school board meeting, Superintendent Lyn McKay said that with all the cost cutting done over the past four years, it is equally important to build strong programs.
“There is no standing still," she said.
Stressing the need to balance fiscal prudence and educational quality, McKay noted that the district's community survey conducted last fall was a factor in the budget process. That survey showed two major themes: residents feel their property taxes are too high (69 percent), but feel that property values will decline if education quality declines (74 percent).
The proposed budget unveiled is at $112,202,888, which is a 0.68-percent increase from the previous year. It calls for a net cut of 10.64 full-time and part-time jobs.
John Chow, assistant superintendent for business noted in his budget presentatin that this represents the second lowest increase over the past eight years. Additionally, the budget calls for a 2.11-percent tax levy increase. While the new tax levy cap is technically set at 2 percent for this year, the district's proposed increase comes in under it because of a series of exemptions granted by the law, such as some pension and capital costs. (For a detailed look at the proposed budget, for our in-depth piece and analysis).
The budget level was enough to please Jim McCauley and the members of New Castle Citizens for Responsible Education (NCCRE), a local fiscal watchdog group. Last year, the group urged voters to reject the budget that is now in place, which ultimately passed.
McCauley described the group as “very happy with it” and noted that it comes in under the tax cap.
Fiscal planning at the meeting focused almost as much on what to do for year's beyond the upcoming budget cycle.
Finding New Revenue: Money & Land
After the budget presentation was complete, a report was given on behalf of the district's finance advisory committee, which focused on how to increase revenue instead of just looking at ways to cut expenses.
“As you saw earlier in John’s presentation, costs are rising faster than the tax cap rate and we are realistically at the point where it’s muscle and not fat," said Warren Hart, a district parent who fits on the committee and described its findings.
Hart talked about a strategy that is proactive. Key to the recommendations are are getting the school board, New Castle Town Board and the town's planning board to coordinate on planning and development of assets and land that neither entity is currently using. He noted that the timing is good due to the fact that the town is beginning the process for updating the master plan, which was last revised in 1989.
In making the case for getting revenue from unused district-owned lands, Hart reiterated a theme that has been raised on many occasions in the past year: New Castle's commercial base needs to bulk up. He showed data stating that just 3.5 percent of the town's assessed value is in commercial properties, versus 90.8 percent for residential.
“It’s not a big surprise. Nail salons don’t generate huge chunks of revenue," Hart said of the existing commercial establishment. He added: “They’re nice people and it’s a fine thing but they don’t throw big cash our way.”
Using vacant properties is already something that the district is looking into, board members Jeffrey Mester and Randall Katchis explained. Existing actions include studying the roughly 20-acre Zauderer property near Garey Drive, which the district has owned since the 1970s and once considered as a middle school site before settling on building Seven Bridges.
Katchis also noted that there are plans to meet with an engineering firm this week to look at uses for more properties, along with possibly meeting with New Castle's planning board.
Hart suggesting establishing a planning-related committee responsive to both the school and town boards, which would make a report by June. The school board adopted a resolution accepting the findings of the finance committe's report.
“We rise and fall together and I think it’s very important that we think long term about what’s best for the town and for the district," said school board President Alyson Kiesel.
Tackling State Mandates
Unfunded mandates given to schools and towns are nothing new. They are a trend that comes up year after year as local officials have grappled with residents frustrated by rising property taxes whose costs are driven by them.
This year, Chappaqua and its neighboring school districts are planning ways to lobby against them. Board member Victoria Tipp, who is Chappaqua's liasion to the Westchester Putnam School Board's Association, gave a presentation on what the regional group has for its list of state mandates that it would like to see changed. They include creating a Tier VI pension level, which Gov. Andrew Cuomo as a way to reduce costs from future public employees, repealing automatic step increases in salaries that are granted after union contracts expire, and changing state special education policies so that they are similar to what the federal government uses.
The school board is considering whether to adopt the group's list of desire changes as is, or whether to support a version with some changes based on its perspective.
In addition, Tipp said that she will bring up discussion of the newly created Mandate Relief Council, which was established last summer as part of the same legislation that included the tax cap, at the next board meeting. Talk of the council was raised when McCauley spoke during the public comment period, in which he explained to the board that districts and local governments can petition the state to look at up to three mandates a year that are felt to be costly. Ultimately, the council does a review and the governor is required to respond to the findings.