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Hilltown Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, August 26, 2010

In wake of May’s budget defeat, BKW lowers tax levy, plans new approach

By Zach Simeone

BERNE — The Berne-Knox-Westerlo School District is revamping its budget advisory committee, in an attempt to improve on last year’s budget process, which angered many district residents. Taxpayers voted the budget down in May, calling the tax levy unaffordable, and the staff and program cuts too deep.

If the committee’s new charter is approved next week, its top priorities this year will be acting as public representatives at budget meetings with the school board, communicating with the greater district on the progression of the budget process, and clarifying for the public any information related to budgeting.

And, the board this month decided to use more of the district’s unexpended fund balance to reduce the tax levy.

When the board passed a $19.6-million contingency budget in May, the plan was to raise the tax levy by 6.5 percent, to $10,525,791.

Kevin Callagy, BKW’s business official, recommended earlier this month that the district appropriate an additional $155,000 from its fund balance, or rainy day account, to take a total of $1,145,000 from the fund balance for the 2010-11 budget. There will be $1,021,833 left in the fund balance.

Taking Callagy’s advice, the school board approved a reduced tax levy on Monday: $10,370,791, an increase of 4.97 percent from last year’s budget.

A better budget committee?

On Monday, Aug. 30, the school board will meet to once again discuss the duties and structure of a new budget advisory committee.

“I think we’re looking for the budget advisory committee to be representatives of the community, and so we’re looking to them to have community input — they’re the community representatives to the [school] board,” said school board president, Maureen Sikule, “All of the budget advisory committee meetings are open to the public.”

The district also hopes to get applications from residents in each town served by BKW.

“A lot of the discussion,” said Paul Dorward, BKW’s new superintendent, “revolved around how we were trying to accomplish balanced representation from the community in the district, and I think the language will read, ‘with the goal of balanced representation from the towns within the district.’”

While the draft charter for the committee has not yet been approved, the board has said that the committee should be composed of: Two members of the school board; two district employees; the district business official; the district superintendent; and six community members, with balanced membership among the towns served by the district.

Throughout the budget process this past spring, residents cried out against the proposed 6.7-percent tax hike, along with the program cuts in the primary and secondary school, and the elimination of 19 staff positions. The board, faced with stagnant property values and massive cuts in state aid, paired with rising pensions and health-care costs, would have had to hike taxes nearly 20 percent if cuts hadn’t been made.

In May, the proposed budget was defeated by district voters, 644 to 522. School board members have acknowledged at recent meetings that communication must be improved among the administration, the district, and the taxpayers to pave the way for a smoother budget process.

Vasilios Lefkaditis, a BKW parent and formerly a member of the district’s budget advisory committee, was vocal in his disapproval of the process, and decried the advisory committee as being useless. He was part of an enclave of BKW residents that began having its own meetings outside of the district to draft a petition in hope of preventing the tax hike, and the deep program and personnel cuts.

Now, the district has written up a draft charter for a revamped committee. The board discussed the charter at last week’s meeting, and it will be further discussed and possibly voted on at next week’s school board meeting.

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