By LIZ BUTTON
The Tuckahoe Union Free School District presented a $31.3 million budget that carries a $1.2 million shortfall, kicking-off the district’s 2014-2015 budget process on March 10.
The budget for next school year reflects a 1.47 percent property tax levy increase which translates to a levy limit increase of $382,959. This property tax levy increase is lower than last year’s, which measured 3.08 percent for the 2013-2014 school year’s $30.8 million budget, explained School Business Administrator Victor Karlsson.
The district will implement New York State’s Smart Schools allocation initiative to buy 700 Google Chromebook devices for third through 12th grade students, which will result in a $170,444 positive impact on the budget, according to district officials. This is possible through ITEA, the International Technology Education Association, a national foundation created to reproduce technological literary standards with nationwide applicability.
“Our expenses are increasing modestly, but we do have a revenue problem,” Karlsson said.
In order to balance the budget and remedy the shortfall, the district has proposed to make a number of cuts, including 1.6 full time equivalent teachers’ aide positions at the elementary school level—which would be replaced by parent volunteers—eliminating a social worker and cutting an attendance clerk position.
Eliminating the social worker position will not be as great a hardship as might be anticipated because the ratio of students to guidance counselor in the district is already 135 to 1, one of the most desirable ratios in Westchester County, according to Assistant Superintendent Carl Albano. But Tuckahoe Teachers’ Association president Marianne Amato expressed concern that some of the resulting leftover job responsibilities, which the district plans to transfer to its three guidance counselors, would require social work training these counselors don’t have.
The school administration presented a budget for 2014-2015 that adds one fifth-grade teacher and suggests the district consolidate out-of-district transportation by purchasing two vans and hiring two hourly drivers to transport three students to two out-of-district schools as required by law. This decision not to contract with a bus company would also allow for additional flexibility for field trips and athletics and result in a savings of $112,466 over five years, officials said.
This move is a continuation of the district’s efforts to save money on transportation, which led to a controversial proposal last year to cancel all bussing in-district; this suggestion was vocally opposed by some in the community and eventually abandoned by the district.
The district also expects a certain number of retirements next year since Tuckahoe will be offering retirement incentives to members of the teachers union for five teachers and to the CSEA union for four staff members, which will allow the district to replace the retirees with new teachers and staffers at lower salaries.
But if the number the district anticipates will choose to retire do not retire, the district will be forced to make further cuts.
The district also proposed using $562,321 in reserves next year to avoid further cuts.
The 2014-2015 school year will be the third in which school districts have had to comply with the state’s two percent limit legislation on property tax levy increases.
“Despite the fact the market is improving, we’re still stuck with the fact the market wasn’t doing well five years ago,” he said.
The district’s current, financially strained conditions can also be attributed to flat state aid and declining revenue due to a decrease in non-resident tuition, according to district officials.
Other school districts have the option to place students in Tuckahoe schools’ programs, such as for special education, if they pay the district tuition fees, but these districts now tend to keep these alternative students in-district to save money.
The other main budget drivers for next year include an increase in teacher retirement system contributions by 7.88 percent and a 4.75 percent increase in employee health insurance premiums.
First-year Superintendent of Schools Dr. Barbara Nuzzi emphasized next year’s budget takes into account the strategic goals outlined in the district’s five-year strategic plan, which the district compiled using community input two years ago with the help of educational consultant Dr. Charles Wilson, a former Pelham schools superintendent.
Going forward, Nuzzi will present an updated draft of the proposed budget on April 7 with state aid allocations and incorporating savings from those staff members who have decided to accept the retirement incentives, and the Board of Education will vote to adopt a budget on April 22. There will be a public hearing on May 12, and the public vote for the budget will take place on May 20.
Although the administration emphasized the school district’s strategic goals are being realized in the new budget, the night’s presentation ended on a grim note.
“Cuts are getting progressively harsher,” said Karlsson. “It’s only painful cuts from here on out.”