School budget season is underway in Commack, and while the district is facing rising costs and state aid decreases, potential cuts appear to be less severe than last year’s budget reductions.
About 18 staff positions are expected to be cut in the 2013-14 school budget, which totals a proposed $179,482,949. That's an increase of $8,138,269 from the current budget, Superintendent Donald James said during a budget workshop on Thursday. However, teacher reductions included in that figure will only be due to retirements and lower enrollment in the elementary schools. The smaller elementary school body is helping to keep class sizes below their grade caps, which was a point of contention during the last budget season.
“We know there are certain things in particular that the community values. We heard a lot last year about class sizes and how important maintaining lower class sizes were,” James said.
District-wide, kindergarten classes are expected to be around 20 students, 22 students for first and second grade, 25 for third grade, 26 for fourth grade and 25 for fifth grade.
While staff cuts are expected to be less drastic than the prior two years, the district is still facing a major reduction in state aid. Commack will see a 70-percent decrease in its high tax aid from the state, equaling a $2.23 million drop, Laura Newman, assistant superintendent for business, said.
That reduction, coupled with rising employee costs debt service and a tax levy cap, made creating a projected budget, with the educational program intact, a very difficult process, the superintendent said.
“You would think that we would try to maintain the integrity of the program first, and we really would like to do that, but controlling expenditures as a result of tax levy legislation, declining state aid and revenues really has to come to the top,” he said.
“The cost drivers are from increasing in benefits, contractual increases, and debt services. You will see that when we go through the codes, that there are no other increases anywhere in the budget. Those are the increases,” he added.
The superintendent presented three different budget scenarios to the Board of Education.
The first, which would result in the fewest cuts, would come out to a 4.73-percent tax levy increase. that figure translates to a tax rate increase of between $450 and $460 for the average Commack homeowner. Those cuts would include the 3:30 p.m. late bus, reductions for declining enrollment, reduction in lab support, the termination of an elementary lead teacher stipend in the music and arts, a reduction in library staff, the loss of community relations personnel, a reduction in school nurses and cuts of under enrolled school teams.
The second, which is the one the superintendent focused on during his presentation, is a 3.43 percent tax levy increase. That scenerio would result in a tax rate increase of between $325 and $335 for the average homeowner. Cuts would include all of those in the first situation, plus a reduction of custodial, clerical, and mental health staff.
Several parents expressed their concern over the district possibly cutting the 3:30 p.m. late bus during the worshop. The superintendent said that he would take the suggestions into consideration for potential budget changes.
The third scenerio would result in a 2.73-percent tax levy increase, which includes all of the cuts in the first and second situations, plus cuts to athletics, co-curricular activities, all late buses, reduction in additional library monitors, increased class sizes and additional cuts to the nursing staff. This would result in a tax rate increase between $250 and $260 for the average homeowner.
All three scenarios are within the tax cap levy limit for the district.
In order to offset reductions in state aid, the district has come up with a plan to increase its revenues. “We’re maximizing our revenues so we are not coming to the taxpayer anymore than we need to,” James said.
Revenue increases expected in the 2013-14 school year include BOCES aid, special education aid and transportation aid.
The superintendent reminded the audience, of about 80 community members, that the budget presentations are preliminary and the board of education will not approve the budget until April 18.
The superintendent said that he has had several meetings with state legislators to convince state officials to give back the state aid that has been cut from the state’s preliminary budget.
“We are in heavy advocacy mode,” he said.
The next budget workshop will take place March 14 at 8 p.m., following a regular board of education meeting at 7 p.m. in the High School.