As the Lynbrook Board of Education begins preparing the district's 2011-12 budget, there seems to be no shortage of bad news coming down from Albany, and that has the district administration worried about what kind of spending plan it will put to a community vote this May.
"It is not a good movement, it is not friendly to school districts, and it is something we have on our number-one agenda as we talk among superintendents and business officials," said Lynbrook Superintendent Dr. Santo Barbarino at Wednesday's Board of Education meeting at Lynbrook High School.
The movement Barbarino is referring to is a two-percent tax cap, proposed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo earlier this year. This legislation— which is not included in the governor's executive budget proposal — would prevent school districts from increasing their property tax levies by more than two percent or the increase in the Consumer Price Index (CPI), whichever is less. The only way a district could exceed the tax cap is if its budget passes with at least 60 percent of the voting public. This stipulation has come to be known in Albany as a "circuit breaker."
Lynbrook's budgets have passed with 60 percent or more of the vote in eight of the last 10 years. However, in many years the figure was 61 percent or 64 percent. So district officials are concerned about such a small margin determining the level of education they can provide to students, if the tax cap were to be enacted.
It is not clear whether a tax cap, if passed by the state legislature, would go into effect this coming school year or the following one. If the cap is enacted in 2011-12 and the district tries to stay under it, the administration would have to take a hard look at its staff, programs and other district expenses in an effort to keep costs down.
"It would tie the hands of school districts and take away the democratic way of life in terms of communities voting for what it is they want in their school districts because they're so limited," Barbarino said. "It is very concerning."
Tax cap aside, the district still has other financial hardships to deal with — it will be paying higher premiums to the state retirement system and receive approximately $650,000 less from the state than it did this year. Cuomo has recommended that school districts use reserve funds to cover some expenses and offset the expected reduction in state aid. However, district officials say it's just not that simple.
"It's going to get worse," said Melissa Burak, the district's assistant superintendent for business. "And when you do use all of your reserves that you have and at the end of the fiscal year you don't have the money to then replenish those reserves, somewhere it's going to die out. And that tax cap is still going to be in existence, and then what do you do?"
State Assemblyman Brian Curran (R-Lynbrook), who was in attendance to congratulate high school student , took a few minutes to talk about the proposed tax cap.
Curran said he and other Republicans in the state Assembly support the implementation of a tax cap if it includes the "circuit breaker" provision and mandate relief for school districts. Senate Republicans have already passed a similar bill; the Assembly has not.
"What we've been pushing for in the Assembly is you can't institute this tax cap without some form of mandate relief," he said. "[The state will] tell you all these requirements about special education and how to teach the kids, which will cost the school district money, but they won't give any [money]."
The school board is meeting with Curran and other elected officials to discuss the tax cap and other legislative issues during a Saturday breakfast. The board will hold its first budget workshops on Feb. 16.
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