MCS taking smaller budget back to voters


By David Avitabile

Middleburgh school board members last week debated, discussed, crunched numbers and finally agreed to put up a slightly smaller budget for a revote on June 18.
After two days of meetings, board members agreed Wednesday to reduce the budget by $88,000 and use another $20,000 from the fund balance to reduce the tax levy increase from 3.92 percent to 2.68 percent.
The new budget of $20.189 million is only .19 percent more than this year's spending plan.
If voters turn down the amended proposal, the district will have a contingency budget that would force more than $344,000 in reductions to get down to a zero tax levy hike.
Middleburgh voters defeated a $20.28 million budget by a count of 374 to 399 on May 21. That budget would have increased the tax levy by 3.92 percent, which was right at the state cap.
A public hearing on the new budget will be held on Thursday at 7pm in the high school library.
After listening to several speakers, almost all of whom were MCS staff members, and reviewing the results from the surveys filled out after the May 21 vote, board members made nine cuts in areas they felt would have the least direct impact on students.
Board members approved the following cuts:
• Eliminate an independent internal auditor, $4,000. The service is no longer mandated for districts with an enrollment under 1,000 students.
• Reduction in an energy services contract, $12,000. The total contract had been $39,000.
• Eliminate the BOCES curriculum coordination service, $20,000. The MCS administrators will be taking over this function.
• Approved an extended leave of absence, $3,000.
• Reduction of funds for contract negotiations, $7,000. The district is currently in contract negotiations with the non-teachers and administrative units.
• Reassignment of a mechanic, $15,000. The mechanic will also have a bus run.
• Elimination of a part-time teacher aide position, $6,000.
_ Reduce a full-time cleaner position to .6, $18,000.
• Elimination of field trips in the elementary school, $3,000. Field trips in the middle school and high schools had already been eliminated in earlier budget cuts.
In addition to the $88,000 in reductions, board members also agreed to cut $20,000 from the fund balance to decrease the tax levy increase to 2.68 percent.
Board members agreed at a special meeting Wednesday night to reduce the proposed tax levy.
On Thursday, they debated on what that increase should be and most agreed it had to be less than three percent.
Board President Kim Smith said the increase should not be less than three percent.
"If we cut these things, they won't come back," she told fellow board members.
In addition, a smaller tax levy hike will make for a bigger budget gap next year.
"It has a significant effect."
Board member Don Wood, noting that a negative vote on the next budget would mean a contingency budget, said, "I don't know if I want to take that gamble" and proposed a tax levy hike of around 2.6 percent.
Board member Pam Standhart suggested a tax levy increase of 2.98 percent which would require $82,000 in cuts but Mr. Wood answered that was too high.
Several people have suggested cutting a guidance counselor, noted board members Mike Fisher and Becky Binder.
Ms. Smith countered that she did not want to make any cuts that would have a big impact on students.
Mr. Wood suggested the nine cuts made in addition to reducing the district clerk's position to .6, which would save another $22,000.
That cut of $109,000 would decrease the tax levy increase to 2.68 percent.
"That's a number I could live with," Mr. Wood added.
The cuts, he continued would have no direct impact on students.
It was suggested to remove the reduction of the district clerk from the list of cuts. That would leave a tax levy hike of 2.92 percent.
Ms. Smith said she would rather reduce a position that does not directly impact students, such as a cleaner or clerk.
There has been much support from residents for the guidance counselor position, she added.
She suggested using $20,000 in fund balance to reduce the hike to 2.68 percent and the other boards members agreed. Mr. Wood did reluctantly because he did not want to take any more money out of the fund balance.
Ms. Binder, Ms. Standhart and Mr. Fisher lobbied for a smaller budget at the special meeting Wednesday night.
"We need to listen to the voters who asked us to make more cuts." Ms. Binder said.
Mr. Fisher pushed for a tax levy hike of zero percent and Ms. Standhart wanted a tax increase of about 2.5 percent.
Ms. Smith told board members that nearly 50 people contacted her and told her to put the same budget up and that they did not want to see more cuts.
Many told her that they did not know the vote was being held on May 21.
More publicity is needed about the vote, she added.
The district, she continued, needs more help from the state.
"If the state doesn't do something, we're done."
Ms. Standhart noted that many people are having problems paying their tax bills.
One in four cannot pay their bills, she added.
"It's not an option. They can't pay it."
Half the voters are retired with no children in the schools, Mr. Fisher noted.
"A lot of people out there have trouble just supporting themselves."
The final tax levy hike was less than speakers encouraged Wednesday and Thursday evenings.
About 17 people attended Tuesday's special meeting and all but two were staff members and teachers.
Teacher Gregg Johns noted that the budget only failed by 25 votes and that it was not well publicized.
Resident Ralph Benham said the "yes" voters have to come out and support the budget.
"If you don't get the yes votes here, you're wasting your time."
He asked what group normally supports the budget and was told that, historically, the parents of elementary school students normally are the biggest supporters of the budget.
Board members briefly discussed moving the voting machines to the elementary school but dismissed that option.
On Wednesday, about 40 people attended the regularly scheduled board meeting. The vast majority were staff members, teachers and students.
Teachers Ross Pacatte and Terry Burton suggested reducing the tax hike slightly.
If more items are eliminated, Mr. Pacatte said, they will not be put back in the future.
With increased state mandates and the APPR, teachers and staff are doing more than ever, he added.
Teachers and staff have accepted a zero percent increase and have made changes in the health insurance plans.
He suggested using some of the fund balance or making cuts that do not directly affect students.
Mr. Burton said a tax levy increase of 3.3 percent "might be reasonable."
He added that with a difference of 25 votes, only 13 people would have to change their minds in order for the budget to pass.
Teacher Deb Herodes said maybe people forgot why taxes are a problem.
She recalled "what we incurred with the flood. As a community we have to bond together."
If the district had to go to a contingency budget, "the education system as we know it won't be the same for our kids."
Several speakers noted the cuts that have been made in the past few years.
More than 30 positions have been eliminated since the 2008-09 school year, officials said.