School finance head says contingency budget could increase spending

Thanks to almost $600,000 in unexpected state aid, the Riverhead School District’s $109.59 million draft version of its 2011-12 budget now calls for a spending increase of 1.26 percent and a tax levy increase of 5.23 percent.

The extra money is being used to offset taxes, and the board also is using $3.4 million in surplus funds to offset taxes.

“This is the lowest increase the district has ever had, in terms of budget to budget,” Superintendent Nancy Carney said at Tuesday night’s school board meeting, the last before the board adopts the budget, which is scheduled to happen at the next board meeting, Tuesday, April 12, at the high school.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Interim Assistant Superintendent for Business Joe Singleton stated that if the proposed budget is voted down by residents on May 17, the board could legally adopt a contingency budget that calls for higher spending and higher tax levy increases.

The contingency budget is what is required to be adopted if a district’s residents fail to adopt a proposed budget, and districts are required to show the contingency budget before the vote. That budget by law can have a spending increase as high as 1.92 percent, according to both Superintendent Nancy Carney and Interim Assistant Superintendent for Business Joe Singleton.

Ms. Carney said certain “non-contingent” spending items, which are considered non-essential, would have to be cut, but Mr. Singleton, in response to a question from board member Angela DeVito, said the board could add to the budget additional items that are allowed in a contingent budget.

“You could end up with a budget increase and a tax levy increase,” Mr. Singleton said.

But the state Department of Education’s website on educational management services disputes that contention, saying a contingency budget cannot be higher than a proposed budget that was defeated.

Under state law, if a budget is rejected, districts can hold only one budget re-vote. A local school board can adopt a contingency budget after the budget is voted down the first time or it can have a second vote. However, if the budget is voted down twice, the board must adopt the contingency budget.

State law caps the maximum increase a contingency budget can have at whichever is less, four percent over the previous budget or 120 percent of the Consumer Price Index. This year, the latter number is lower, coming in at 1.92 percent.

The SED website reads: “When the proposed budget is below the contingency budget cap, the contingency budget is calculated by removing all non-contingency appropriations from the proposed budget.

“Items which are statutorily considered non-contingency expenses are, for example, student supplies, community use of buildings and grounds, certain equipment purchases and certain salary increases. Therefore, the contingency budget adopted by the Board of Education would always be less than the proposed budget. In this situation, the ‘Contingency Budget’ column of the budget notice mailed to all residents must reflect these reductions.”

The News-Review emailed that section of the state’s website to school officials for clarification after Tuesday’s meeting but had not received a response.

The draft budget reviewed Tuesday was the first since the board got word that the cuts in state aid were not as severe in the final state budget as they were in Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposed budget in February.

At it’s previous budget review session, before the additional aid was restored, the school board was looking at a spending increase of about 1.9 percent and a tax levy increase of about 5.7 percent. But Ms. Carney said there is still a state aid reduction of about $1.6 million, a federal aid reduction of almost $900,000 and a state-mandated increase in pension costs of just over $2 million.

These three items amount to $4.5 million and are part of the reason the tax levy is increasing at a greater rate than the spending. “And this increase is before any other mandated or contractual increases,” Ms. Carney said.

Increases related to contractual agreements account for another $2.1 million, or 2.55 percent more on the tax levy, she said.

If just the pension payments were subtracted, the budget would actually call for a decrease in spending, she said.

The proposed budget calls for the elimination of 38 positions, including 15 teacher spots, which will require increased class sizes, Ms. Carney said.
Two retired library media specialists, Marge Lawrence and Barbara Olsen, made impassioned pleas not to cut the library positions in the proposed budget.


“A library is not a luxury,” Ms. Lawrence said.

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