The Tuckahoe School District is facing tough economic decisions in the next few months, as administrators weigh whether to drain much of what is left of the district’s dwindling reserve funds, or to make program and staff cuts that officials believe will hurt the quality of education for the district’s students.
At a Board of Education meeting on Monday night, District Superintendent Chris Dyer announced that the district must close an estimated $917,405 budget gap in 2014-15 to come in under the state’s cap on tax levy increases. That cap currently is 1.46 percent, equal to the Consumer Price Index increase; each year it is either 2 percent or equal to the CPI, whichever is lower.
The problem, he said, is that the district has already had to cut so much since the tax cap was first introduced two years ago—so much so that further cuts would be hard to manage while maintaining a standard of education.
That is why, Mr. Dyer said, the district is looking to use up its reserve funds, a risky move that will leave no money for emergency expenses next year and no money to help offset the 2015-16 budget if a proposed merger with the Southampton School District fails a second time.
“We promised that this year we are not going to have to cut any programs or staff,” Mr. Dyer said during the meeting. “We built our program this year around that, and the idea of not being educationally insolvent. We think we are solvent at this point.”
The first draft of the 2014-15 budget stands at $18,795,860, an increase of 1.86 percent over the current year’s $18,452,011 spending plan, according to school business official Dr. Philip Kenter. At the same time, the district is projecting the maximum allowable tax levy at $16,855,182. Although that number is a 2.45-percent increase over the current year’s levy of $16,451,195, it still falls within the state mandated 1.46-percent cap after exemptions, like those for pension costs, are taken into account.
According to Dr. Kenter, the district is now assessing how to make up the $917,405 shortfall to come in under the cap. Currently, he said, the district plans to roll over unused funds from this year’s budget, an amount expected to total approximately $680,000, to offset the cost. Another $134,549 is expected to be taken from the district’s unemployment reserve fund, leaving roughly $10,000 to be found. Although this is the first option, Dr. Kenter stressed that it is up to the Board of Education to authorize this route.
From there, Dr. Kenter said, the district has several options for the remaining shortfall. Options presented by Mr. Dyer at the meeting include cutting back on teaching assistants, reading teachers, the ESL program, making the school librarian a part-time position, and merging the superintendent and principal positions. According to Mr. Dyer, the board will make its final decisions before putting the proposed budget before the taxpayers in May.
While using the reserve funds will help offset taxpayer costs, the move to deplete the unemployment reserve is a risky one. Dr. Kenter explained that the district will have to evaluate any claims that would typically be funded through the unemployment reserve as they come in, noting they will still be obligated to pay them. “It is all risky,” he said in a phone interview Tuesday. “We would have to determine the amount of the claim and try to find the money somewhere.”
He also explained that the district does have four other reserve accounts, totaling $1.2 million, to draw from, but that some of the money in those accounts is already earmarked for future projects.
None of the board members addressed the public during the hearing.
The next Tuckahoe School Board meeting is scheduled for Monday, March 3, at 7:30 p.m. at the Tuckahoe School library on Magee Street.