SWR proposed budget would increase tax levy 1.9 percent

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03/06/2013 12:00 PM |

JENNIFER GUSTAVSON PHOTO | The Shoreham-Wading River School Board at Tuesday night’s meeting.

The Shoreham-Wading River school board discussed Tuesday how it plans to plug a budget gap created by salary and health care cost increases coming in the 2013-14 school year.

During the school board’s regular meeting, Superintendent Steven Cohen estimated that expenditures will rise by 5.25 percent in his nearly $66 million preliminary spending plan, up about $3.3 million over the current school year.

The majority of those expenses, he said, will result from a 5.2 percent increase in salaries, up $1.6 million, and a 13 percent increase in benefits, up over $2.2 million. The total cost of salaries, Mr. Cohen projected, is $32.3 million — or 49 percent of his proposed budget — and nearly $18 million in benefits, which account for about 27 percent.

While Mr. Cohen said his preliminary spending plan maintains current programs and staff, he’s also allocated additional funds for more security measures, like guard salaries and benefits, cameras, vehicles and uniforms.

The district is considering using “one-shot” revenues to offset a tax levy spike, including $4 million from its fund balance, $1.5 million of prior year state aid and nearly $227,100 from the employee retirement system reserve, Mr. Cohen said.

Other options the school board has to reduce costs, he said, are to cut educational programs, lay off teachers and other staff and increase class sizes.

Most of the non-mandated programs that could be cut are high school programs, including interscholastic athletics, music, foreign language, school newspaper and science research, Mr. Cohen said.

“Obviously, we’re not recommending that we make these cuts, but what is important for us to recognize is these are the tough questions that the board and the community are going to have to consider because this where the money is if we’re not going to use money from the savings,” he said.

Under Mr. Cohen’s proposal, the tax levy increase will remain within the state’s limit, at 1.9 percent.

While a state law passed in 2010 caps year-to-year increases in the tax levy — the total amount the district collects from taxpayers — at 2 percent, the district is allowed to exceed the state’s mandate because certain expenses, such as pensions and capital costs, are exempt.

Although SWR is allowed to raise the tax levy to 2.29 percent without obtaining 60 percent voter approval, school board member Jack Costas wondered if the community understands that such a move isn’t an attempt to pierce the tax cap and will approve it in May.

“I have reservations going over 2 [percent],” Mr. Costas said. “It’s almost like a psychological barrier … I’d rather go to 2 [percent] and then just pull from the fund balance.”

School board members agreed to consider their options during future budget workshops to create a spending plan over its starting point of 1.9 percent, which Mr. Cohen said is nearly $190,700 less than the allowable tax levy increase.

Future budget workshops are scheduled as follows:

• March 12: transportation, districtwide expenses, facilities, debt service and transfers.

• March 19: special education, personnel services, health services, technology, curriculum and staff development.

• April 2: athletics and community programs.

• April 9: revenue budget and budget review.

jennifer@timesreview.com