Despite being advertised as a 2 percent cap, the actual limit on how school taxes can be raised varies by district under a complex formula taking into account inflation, tax base growth, capital project costs and other factors.
However, this year, the average tax levy increase being proposed by local school districts in The Post-Star’s coverage area is nearly 2 percent — at about 1.98 percent. A little less than half of the 30 districts in The Post-Star’s coverage area are increasing the tax levy up to their cap. Spending is also up about 2 percent.
Local voters go to the polls Tuesday to approve or reject their district’s budget and to elect school board candidates.
A combination of increased state aid and cost containment has allowed school districts to hold down increases, even as they are adding or restoring programs. Many districts are adding school security officers and funding for security upgrades in light of February’s shooting in Parkland, Florida that killed 17 people.
The local average mirrors the state. The average proposed tax levy increase is 2.15 percent. The overall spending increase is a little higher at 2.6 percent, according to New York State School Boards Association spokesman David Albert.
Albert said the improving economy has resulted in higher inflation — a key component of the tax cap calculation. The consumer price index is right at 2 percent. It hasn’t been that high since 2013. In 2016, it was nearly flat at 0.12 percent
“I think a combination of the increased tax levy growth factor, plus state aid increase, has helped many districts stay within the cap,” he said.
Total state education aid is increasing by about $1 billion to $26.7 billion — including about $618 million more in the basic Foundation Aid grant. Cuomo had only proposed increasing that by $338 million.
“The governor’s proposal would have been a real problem for districts, but fortunately, the Legislature helped increase aid to public schools,” said Queensbury Superintendent of Schools Douglas Huntley. “It sounds like most districts are going to be able to stay within their tax cap.”
Focus on security, mental health
Many districts in Warren, Washington and Saratoga counties are seeking to contract with sheriff’s departments to hire retired police officers for security. Upgrades to school security are a statewide trend as well, Albert said. The fact that the Parkland shooting happened in the midst of districts putting together their budgets played a role.
“It really did spark a higher level of interest in investing in school security and school safety. Districts were realizing that they needed to do even more. In this day and age, you can never be too safe,” he said.
School districts are also investing in mental health services, according to Albert.
Hadley-Luzerne is bringing in Parsons Child and Family Center to work with local students and families. Queensbury and Cambridge already have agreements with Parsons. Granville is working with the Warren Washington Association for Mental Health to provide counseling services to students and offer academic and health-related initiatives.
Restoring programs, adding technology
The additional aid has allowed districts to restore programs. Hadley-Luzerne is hiring a business teacher to bring back its business department. Hudson Falls is adding high school electives to reduce the number of students in study hall. Minerva is restoring a summer enrichment program that was cut when the district had a defeated budget back in 2014.
Technology is another common theme, according to Huntley. His district is adding an engineering curriculum at the middle school, adding courses at the high school and continuing with equipment upgrades.
Elsewhere, Glens Falls is adding a district-wide instructional technologist and Johnsburg is creating a MakerSpace, where students can work on creative projects.
School enrollment continues to decline slightly, according to Huntley. That has given districts like Queensbury some flexibility in adding programs, but not adding positions.
“We’re reducing some staffing as a result of declining enrollment,” he said.
Districts are also prudently managing their finances and drawing down reserves, according to Albert.
“Collectively, districts are drawing about a billion in unrestricted fund balance to keep tax levies low and to maintain or add staff and programs,” he said.
Fort Edward school taxes could jump significantly
Nearly half of the 669 school districts are proposing tax levy increases that go right up to the cap, according to an analysis by The Empire Center, a fiscally conservative think tank. A total of 309 districts are at the cap limit. The center claims this fact is evidence that school districts would have proposed higher levy increases without the cap.
“New York’s school districts are receiving record-high levels of aid from Albany to educate fewer students, and our school taxes are still climbing,” said Empire Center Executive Director Tim Hoefer, in a news release. “Albany’s fixation on steering more state funds to schools isn’t translating into property tax relief. The tax cap has succeeded in slowing the growth of taxes, but there’s more to be done to set New York on the right track.”
Fort Edward made the Empire Center’s list of school districts proposing the greatest per-pupil spending increases at No. 4 in the state.
The district is proposing to increase the tax levy by 6.14 percent to the district’s cap of $3.184 million. That calculates to $6,565 per pupil with the district’s enrollment of 485 students.
Fort Edward Superintendent Daniel Ward said the district has a high cap because of debt payments. He claims the Empire Center report is misleading because it is only looking at the year-to-year increase in the tax levy. Last year, the district decreased its levy by $625,000 from the year before. This year, it is seeking to increase it by $148,000 to $3.148 million, which Ward pointed out would be the districts’s second-lowest since the 2008-2009 year, when it was at $2.85 million.
However, residents are facing a potentially 31 percent increase in their tax rate because of a further drop in the assessment of the former General Electric dewatering plant property, which is now owned WCC LLC. That could reduce the total assessed value of property in the district from $139 million to $112 million.
If that becomes the final assessment, the district’s tax rate could increase from $21.53 per $1,000 to $28.34, according to a presentation from the district. A homeowner with a house assessed at $100,000 would pay $681 more in taxes, for a $2,834 total.
Ward reiterated that it’s assessments that are driving that tax bill.
“We’re not spending exponentially more money, causing the taxes to go up. The property value of the former GE, now the WCC property, has gone down substantially. It’s a reallocation of the levy to the other resident of the villages,” he said.
Ward also pointed out that the share of the budget that is funded by the tax levy is the second-lowest in Washington County at around 28 percent. Other districts are as high as 50 percent.
Ward is cautiously optimistic that residents will approve the district’s proposed budget.
“I think that our community definitely wants to support the needs of the students, although they’re concerned about how that affects their bottom line in their own homes,” he said.
Reducing spending, adding to reserves
Some districts are even reducing their overall budget or tax levy. South Glens Falls and Fort Ann have large drops in their overall budgets because of debt coming off the books. Granville is keeping its $7.076 million tax levy flat for the fourth consecutive year.
Warrensburg is proposing to cut its tax levy by 4 percent — decreasing it by over $300,000. School officials have said they have been “right-sizing” their budget for the last few years to account for the drop in enrollment. In addition, a switch to a lower-cost health insurance plan has helped hold the line on costs.
Saratoga Springs has the only major capital project on the ballot — $15.4 million to upgrade district buildings. However, some districts are seeking to create or fund reserve funds for future equipment purchases and building projects, including Fort Ann, Indian Lake, South Glens Falls, Warrensburg and Whitehall.
Few contested local school board races
Albert said another trend statewide is an increase in the number of people running for school board seats. There are almost 400 more people running than there are available seats statewide.
However, Albert said it varies by region, with more districts having contested races in the mid-Hudson Valley, Nassau County and Long Island. By contrast, Albert said the North Country, which stretches from Warren County to the Canadian border, has among the fewest competitive races.
There may be a specific issue that is bringing people out to run for school boards, according to Albert.
“Often, controversy prompts more people to run for board,” he said.
In The Post-Star’s area, there are only a dozen contested races out of 30 districts. One of the hottest races is in Lake George, where incumbents Kim Heunemann and James McCabe are being challenged by Tricia Connor Biles and Katie Bruening. Some residents have spoken out vocally against the board’s decision in March to eliminate the job of Lake George Junior-Senior High School Vice Principal Cody Conley and hire an interim director of curriculum, instruction and support services. School officials say the change is necessary to improve academic achievement and make sure the curriculum is aligned across all grade levels. Critics are concerned about safety and school culture with the elimination of Conley’s job since his duties included handling discipline.
In Fort Edward, incumbent Christopher Miles is the only candidate on the ballot. However, there are three other seats up for grabs, which will be filled by write-in candidates.
School elections generally draw a light turnout. However, Queensbury Superintendent Huntley encouraged people to get out and vote.
“There’s an economic development component to quality public schools. It’s important to keep our schools strong,” he said.
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"...the Empire Center is the think tank that spent months trying to pry Covid data out of Mr. Cuomo's government, which offered a series of unbelievable excuses for its refusal to disclose...five months after it (the Empire Center) sued, Team Cuomo finally started coughing up some of the records." -Wall Street Journal, February 19, 2021
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