BY CHERYL SLAVIN
At its May 6 meeting the North Rockland Central School District held the final public hearing on its completed proposed budget for the 2014-2015 year. The proposed budget of $208,323,157 represents a 0.97 percent increase over last year. The proposed tax levy totaling $137,834,268 represents an increase of 0.25 percent, or about $339,000 over last year’s levy.
Currently the new budget calls for a total of 13.3 staff reductions, covering 7.3 teaching positions, three teacher assistant positions and three civil service employees. However, as in years past, Eckert hopes to achieve these cuts primarily through attrition rather than by direct lay offs. So far about five teaching positions, two to three assistant positions and all three civil service positions are up for elimination through retirements. She will check the number again in the middle of the summer to see if any additional retirement slots come available.
According to Superintendent Ileana Eckert, the district’s goal has always been to work within its means without compromising quality of education. All parties have worked very hard to keep expenses down by making judicious cuts and consolidating services wherever possible. In addition, notes School Board President Harry LeFevre, this is the second year since the district had closed two school buildings, which has resulted in considerable savings.
The district has definitely felt the pinch resulting from the two Mirant tax certiorari cases.
The revenue stream flowing from the Bowline and Lovett power plants has dropped from a pre-2006 $44 million to a mere $1.8 million PILOT payment in 2014. Accordingly, residential taxpayers have had to make up the slack. Residential taxes used to account for about 35 percent of the district’s total tax revenue; now they account for about 65 percent.
The district also continues to grapple with diminishing state aid. Not only has school foundation aid been frozen since 2008 at about $7 million a year, the state’s gap elimination adjustment (GEA) has continued to siphon off school aid funds to cover budget gaps in other areas. The combined result is a total loss of over $108 million in state aid since 2009.
Eckert also announced, however, that since the district has been able to keep its tax levy increase below the 2 percent tax cap this year (in fact, it has done so for the past eight years), residential taxpayers are eligible for a state-directed “property tax freeze.” Residential property owners eligible for a STAR exemption on their primary residence will receive a rebate check equal to the difference between this year’s tax levy and last year’s. The rebates will not, however, account for any increase in assessment due to changes or improvements on the property. Eckert states that the rebates can be expected this fall; however, the exact timing is still unclear, as is the procedure by which the payments will be disbursed. Residents will still have to pay the increased amount, and can expect to receive the rebate sometime later, probably through the mail.
During public input, a parent raised the question why North Rockland continues to be one of a few school districts in the state to only offer half-day Kindergarten. Currently 11.5 teachers cover 23 half-day sections (12 morning and 11 afternoon) for a total of around 500 students. As Superintendent Eckert explained, it would take $5 to 6 million more to provide for a full-day program, which would bring the district’s tax levy way above the 2 percent cap. Eckert reiterated that although she would dearly like to implement a full-day program, right now it is not fiscally feasible unless state mandated or state funded.
The budget vote will be held on May 20. Voters can view both the April and May power point presentations about the budget as well as a budget fact sheet by going to www.nrcsd.org.