Saturday, February 4, 2012

Board Begins Review: Proposed Budget Shows 2.3% Increase

In the first year of the statewide 2% tax levy cap, the Bronxville Board of Education has begun its review of a proposed spending plan showing a 2.3% budget-to-budget increase. The next step will make various adjustments and identify specific ways to lower expenditures. It would take reductions of $314,490 to meet the cap and reductions of over $1 million to stay at zero growth.

Board President Jim Hudson introduced the process by explaining that unfunded mandates make it more difficult to comply with a tax cap, but thus far the state has not provided any relief. Further, he pointed out that by retiring some debt, the effective tax cap for Bronxville is actually 1.5%.  Any budget below a 2% tax levy increase requires majority approval in the school budget election; a budget above the cap requires a 60% override.  He concluded by pointing out that cost containment efforts in prior years have successfully preserved programs, but that it was getting increasingly difficult to do so.

In his message Superintendent David Quattrone echoed these comments by referring to "a sustainable model of excellence" as the key goal of district planning.  Strategic budgeting, he said, had focused on reductions in non-instructional areas, preserving a comprehensive array of services and programs that add value to student development.  While sustainability is a long-term effort, he cited recent collective bargaining agreements as one example of better alignment of compensation with the rate of inflation.  Finally, he pointed out that the proposed budget includes a number of innovations such as new high school electives. One major cost driver is an expected huge increase in flood insurance premiums, estimated at $300,000 -- roughly the size of the dollar amount exceeding the cap.

Dan Carlin, Assistant Superintendent for Business, explained the details. An earlier edition of the budget had shown total expenditures about $844,000 above the 2% mark. That figure has since been modified to reflect corrections and new information leading to a $500,000 downward adjustment in the proposed budget.

Enrollment is stable, he reported. Although overall staffing has decreased by 33.6 positions since 2008, next year's budget includes one additional position, a school psychologist,  funded in 2011-12 by a grant that is no longer available. He reviewed special education revenue and enrollments, and explained the changing insurance picture stemming from the August flood.

Mandatory employer contributions to pensions and health benefit premiums also contribute to budget increases, though Carlin pointed out that recent negotiations have resulted in a higher percentage of contribution by teachers and other staff members. Unfunded mandates include not only these contributions but also expenditures for testing, audits, special education, and private school transportation. The budget also includes non-discretionary costs such as workers compensation, utilities, insurance, and social security.

An extensive period of comment and questions followed the presentation.  Board comments focused on the technicalities of the tax cap, how best to show year-to-year salary comparisons, state aid trends, and what reductions might be possible and reasonable in the area of private school transportation. Looking for ways to get below the tax cap or even a 0% increase, Board members also asked about administrative consolidation, moving away from textbooks, hiring practices, extra-curricular participation, alternate approaches to health insurance, and how the Foundation or PTA might offset costs. Another area of interest was how best to deploy reserves.

Public comments and questions concerned reserves, pension costs, advocacy for private school transportation, support for full-day kindergarten, concern about sixth grade class size, and the opportunity to consolidate services with neighboring districts.

The workshop lasted a little over two hours, and the administration will proceed to analyze the impact of various budget reduction scenarios and make adjustments as new information arrives.  The next update will be at the regular Board meeting on February 16.