Berne-Knox-Westerlo School Board, still divided on levy increase, seeks trimmings

HILLTOWNS — Three of five Berne-Knox-Westerlo board members voted to look into budget cuts so as not to increase the tax levy on local property owners and to offset the use of reserve funds as they develop next year’s budget.

A revised projection of revenues during the Monday board meeting included no levy increase, which Helen Lounsbury, Gerald Larghe, and Vasilios Lefkaditis proposed at the Feb. 4 meeting, and it used $360,000 in additional reserve funds to eliminate any outstanding deficit for a $21.6 million budget next year.

Last year’s levy was $10.9 million, just over half of the proposed budget.

Business Official David Hodgkinson noted this pushed the district’s projected deficits over $1 million in the following two years and used up much of BKW’s available reserves.

“I have a strong feeling that many people in this town cannot afford any more than they are already paying,” said Lounsbury.

The increase in the amount of taxes levied each year is limited by law, touted as a 2-percent cap, but determined by a complex formula. Monday’s projections put exclusions to the cap around $175,000. The cap can also be surpassed with 60 percent or more of the public vote.

“I’d like to see you tear it down and build it back up. Hit the reset button,” said Lefkaditis, board president. “If you think there’s fat, you’re welcome to take it from the fat. Otherwise, just dip into reserves.”

He advocated for a baseline budget, building with basic, required expenses, instead of a rollover of current programs and staff. Lefkaditis called the current process “guesswork,” and, with Larghe, said a baseline budget might result in savings.

“I hear what you’re saying about the baseline system,” said board member Maureen Sikule. “What I don’t see is, you don’t know for sure you’re going to have a million dollars next year. Why don’t you plan for a modest tax increase this year, and, if you save the million and more next year, have a tax decrease? But if you could build the program that way, then that’s fine, but you don’t know.”

The board decided at its January goal-setting meeting to develop a baseline budget over the summer, after the 2013-14 budget is voted on in May.

“I actually think that we are in a relatively good position. I think the district had made some difficult decisions over the last three to four years that have put us in a much better position,” Superintendent Paul Dorward said Tuesday. He added that the numbers being used are of conservative estimates, as some amounts, like state aid, could vary.

The governor’s budget proposal allots $8.3 million in total aid to BKW, almost 40 percent of projected expenses.

Next fall, $10,000 could come into the district for each of the five to eight expected international students enrolled in its Student and Exchange Visitor Program. Those numbers are not included in the budget projections this spring.

Dorward said cuts to be avoided would be those that affect staff or students, such as cutting a teacher or increasing class sizes. An analysis of declining enrollment numbers in the high school last year, he said, did not find the removal of a position was appropriate.

“Part of what I told you was that we would still be engaging in those conversations to see if there were cost savings. Because, I do think that, historically, that type of a look-see hadn’t happened in a number of years,” said Dorward, adding that such savings probably wouldn’t make up the deficit.

A series of federal spending cuts, commonly called the sequester, could begin on Friday if Congress does not act.

“I don’t know exactly what the impact would be. I’d say there’re way too many things up in the air right now,” Dorward said on Monday.

According to numbers released by the White House, New York would lose $42.7 million in funding for Title I grants, which focus funds on districts with low-income students, and $36.4 million in IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) grants, which help fund special education.

“The effect of that cannot really be determined at this time, other than to say there may be a cut,” said Hodgkinson on Tuesday.

Title I and IDEA grants are among other federal funds for BKW, which are a part of its $1.3 million appropriated fund balance.

“You budget for the salaries, and then the grants come through, then you don’t spend that money. So that’s kind of the concept,” said Hodgkinson during the Monday meeting.

Other business

In other business, the board:

— Heard from Transportation Director Denise Towne and Hodgkinson on a proposal to purchase four new buses for $332,000 to rotate into the district’s fleet. The new buses would be paid for with state aid and $130,000 from the transportation reserve fund.

Older buses, Towne said, cost more to maintain and would be sold.

Board members tabled the proposal and asked for more information, including how much buses cost to maintain. With the board’s approval, the public would vote on the proposal on May 21;

— Heard District Clerk Denise Robinson announce the opening of two board of education seats currently held by Jill Norray and Helen Lounsbury.

Nominations for the three-year positions require signatures from at least 25 qualified voters in the district. Petition forms, available in the district office, need to be returned to the district clerk on April 22 by 4 p.m.;

— Heard Lefkaditis commend a bus driver for handling an emergency and the BKW cheerleading team that competed in the National High School Cheerleading Championship in Orlando, Fla. at the beginning of the month. Norray gave thanks to the community for supporting their trip.

“There was an incident about three weeks ago, and, according to Mrs. Towne, the supervisor of transportation — I don’t’ want to mention her name, because I don’t know if it’s appropriate — let’s just say one of our bus drivers did a fantastic job in an emergency situation,” said Lefkaditis. “She was calm, collected, she handled the children properly, she addressed communication properly”;

— Approved the surplus of two buses;

— Approved a bond resolution to finance three buses approved by voters last May;

— Approved a Valedictorian/Salutatorian policy with amendments. A student who attends an off-campus program would be able to be a co-valedictorian or co-salutatorian, but not the sole member of each category in a given year. Only students who have attended BKW for at least three years are eligible; and

— Tabled the approval of a standardized hiring handbook until the next meeting.

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