The Tuckahoe School Board presented a bleak financial future last Thursday night, November 29, to an audience of elected officials and taxpayers.
The district’s budget projections were sobering: Without piercing the 2-percent New York State tax levy cap in the 2013-14 school year, the district could reach a $1 million budget deficit, one that would only grow in subsequent years.
Officials outlined the district’s efforts to maintain programs while keeping up with unfunded state mandates, high tuition rates for matriculating students, soaring employee benefits costs, and decreasing assessed property values. Those issues have pushed the board toward a merger feasibility study with the Southampton School District, as well as consideration of an exclusivity deal to send high school students only to Southampton High School next year, rather than letting students choose between Southampton High School and the lower-priced Westhampton Beach High School. Southampton offered lower tuition payments in exchange that would save the district an estimated $600,000. Tuckahoe does not have a high school and must pay tuition to other districts to educate its high school-age students.
“There are stark realities without a lot of simple solutions,” School Board Chairman Dr. Daniel Crough said of the district’s fiscal situation.
The elected officials who were present—State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr., Suffolk County Legislator Jay Schneiderman and a representative from U.S. Representative Tim Bishop’s office—said that although there’s not much they can do about the state’s tax levy cap, which limits the district’s ability to raise taxes, and falling assessments, they would assist in finding funding for the merger feasibility study and a possible consolidation, as well as pushing for mandate relief.
According to Tuckahoe Business Official Keri Loughlin, in order to keep the same programs in place for the 2013-14 school year, the budget would need to be approximately $18.5 million, which is an $814,452 increase from this year’s budget. The amount is pushed up by contracted expenses, as well as the cost of employee benefits, which is expected to increase from $2.5 million this year to $3.2 million next year, a hike of more than 29 percent.
But covering an $18.5 million budget would require a tax levy increase of an estimated 9.5 percent, or about $1.5 million. In reality, the state-mandated tax cap prevents the district from asking taxpayers for that high of an increase, unless there is a vote by taxpayers to pierce the cap—unlikely, since even this year’s original budget, which stayed under the tax cap, was voted down by taxpayers in May.
If the School Board raises the tax levy by the maximum 2 percent for the 2013-14 school year, the district still would face an estimated $1 million deficit, Ms. Loughlin said. If the district does not increase its tax levy, it would incur an estimated $1.2 million budget deficit—and that would increase in the coming years, eventually hitting an estimated $2.8 million deficit for the 2015-16 school year.
Like all school districts across the state, Tuckahoe has been dealt a blow by unfunded state mandates, such as the tax levy cap and Annual Professional Performance Review teacher assessments, as well as new education requirements. According to Ms. Loughlin, the APPR has cost Tuckahoe an estimated $53,367 to implement thus far, including training and substitute teacher costs, purchasing the computer program needed for the assessments, adhering to the state’s newly adopted common core standards, and other related expenses.
The state has also mandated that within two years, state exams must be taken on computers, Ms. Loughlin said. In order to comply, the district has spent approximately $72,356 on new computers. New special education requirements have also caused an increase of $11,370 in the spending plan.
“If you add these up, it is the cost of one teacher and possibly the support of a teacher’s assistant,” Ms. Loughlin said.
Just this year, the district had to lay off an elementary science teacher, a special education teacher and a part-time social worker to cut costs.
“Tuckahoe started trying to eliminate costs with the recession two years before the implementation of the tax cap,” said Dr. Crough. “Then the state took over and doubled up on trying to respond to the state’s needs and taxpayers’ needs. We were poorly positioned for that, because we cut so much out of the budget. We can’t cut anymore.”
Hoping to offer some solace, Mr. Thiele said he agreed that the unfunded state mandates have been a burden on schools. “I always thought if the state thinks it’s a good idea, we should be paying for it,” he said. “The governor needs to have the same political will for mandate relief as he did for the tax cap.”