The Rye Neck School District’s $39.9 million budget for the 2014-2015 school year remains within the state mandated tax cap, but some school officials worry this may be the last year that a tax cap-compliant budget is an option.
On April 23, the Board of Education approved the budget, a 4.54 percent budget-to-budget spending increase, in a unanimous vote.
The budget comes in under the state mandated tax cap of 3.15 percent and carries a 3.12 percent tax levy increase.
Rye Town taxpayers will see a 1.25 percent tax rate increase, while Rye City taxpayers will see a 5.27 percent tax rate increase. The tax rate is the amount per thousand dollars of an individual’s property assessment that must be paid. The district serves students from both portions of Rye City and the Village of Mamaroneck, as Rye Neck’s district overlaps both municipal boundaries.
“For what is now the third year in a row, our Board of Education is proposing a fiscal plan that not only meets the state’s highly restrictive tax cap, but also preserves the programs and opportunities that our students must have to be competitive,” Superintendent Dr. Peter Mustich said. “Though we are satisfied on behalf of the taxpayers to offer a compliant budget, the question we continue to ask ourselves is whether this is sustainable. From this vantage point, the simple answer is no.”
The biggest drivers of the 2014-2015 budget are employee salaries and benefits, which account for more than $30.7 million of the near $40 million budget. After taking into consideration increases to retirement contributions and health insurance premiums, salary and benefits costs increased 11.5 percent over the current year’s budget.
The budget also includes a net staffing increase of 1.4 new positions within the district. A total of 3.3 full-time equivalent, FTE, teaching positions were added, including a physical education teacher for Rye Neck middle and high schools and a resource teacher for F.E. Bellows Elementary School.
However, to counteract the additional 3.3 FTE positions, 1.90 FTE positions were cut, including part-time monitor positions at Daniel Warren Elementary School and a clerical position within district offices.
Over the past five years, the school district has cut 17.4 positions.
In total, the net staffing increase of 1.4 positions accounts for an additional $159,694 in salaries toward the 2014-2015 budget.
The district is also budgeting for more than $1.9 million in debt service, or the money owed toward loans. While debt service has increased by more than $473,000 over the current year’s budget, the district is utilizing the expense to its advantage.
“We’re taking advantage of all the exclusions that we possibly can this year in terms of debt service,” Dr. Kimberly Bucci, assistant superintendent for business, said.
A district can add exclusions like debt service to the tax levy limit set by the state. The exclusions increase the amount of taxes the district is allowed to levy, but still requires only a simple majority of voters for budget approval.
Typically, if a budget exceeds the tax cap set by the state, a supermajority, or 60 percent vote, of the governing body must approve a tax cap override.
“We had borrowed last year on two bonds and one of the things that will help us in terms of the [tax levy] cap is a debt service exclusion,” Bucci said.
The district bonded for $1.47 million in security improvements including an upgraded phone system, alarms and cameras in the current budget year.
Besides the $35.5 million the district will receive in property taxes, other revenue sources include $1.6 million in state aid and a $575,000 transfer from the Employee Retirement System reserve fund. The district also budgeted $1.2 million from fund balance, or the excess of revenues over expenditures.
School officials decided a tax cap-compliant budget was the district’s best option this year and wanted to preserve the opportunity for taxpayers to receive a rebate if the district stayed within the cap—an incentive set forth by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, in 2011 after the state implemented the tax levy cap mandates.
“There is no clear indication of what that rebate’s going to be. There’s no clear indication of how much it’s going to be to individual citizens or what the qualifications are going to be. But we were very concerned that the perception of us taking away that rebate would be enough to defeat the budget,” Mustich said. “We decided that the risk was too great this year and we would have to make this decision. I can tell you that this isn’t sustainable.”
The public budget vote will be held on Tuesday, May 20.