BY MICHAEL CAHILL
Debate heats up at North Rockland School Board meeting
The North Rockland Central School board committee of the whole met Tuesday evening at the administration building to discuss the district’s report card and the vote on next years district budget.
During the first public comments section, concerned local resident Diego Aviles took the floor. Aviles expressed concern about the size of this year’s budget and suggested that there are other things the board could do to address this year’s budget cuts.
Aviles stated that he did not agree with the $3.5 million in budget cuts needed for this year. He suggested that the board should seek not to increase the tax levy at all, as a way to attract more businesses to the area.
The next item on the agenda were various tax refunds that businesses and residents had filed against the district. The totals for those returns were not yet calculated, and Assistant Superintendent of Business James Johnston said he would notify the board with the totals when the number is available.
These refunds come as residents and businesses in the district have their property values reassessed. Many properties in the area have not been assessed since the 1960s or 80s. Property owners are finding their land is not worth as much as it once was and the district is footing the bill for those over assessments
The board moved onto the presentation of the district’s report card from 2010 – 2011. This report showcases the test scores of North Rockland students from their state exams last year.
The report showed that while the majority of students in North Rockland did well on the state exams, there are certain groups of students who need help. These groups are students who are English language learners, students with disabilities, and students from lower income families.
To address this, the district will be implementing a new core curriculum starting in the fall. This curriculum focuses on empowering individual teachers with new skills and strategies to facilitate learning for students. Teachers will also have the opportunity for more professional development.
Eckert then presented the final district budget for 2012 -2013 to the board. The total estimated budget for next year will $201.5 million. The budget will come with a 2.69 percent tax levy, which equates to $132.7 million. Eckert reiterated that the reason for the tax increases over the years has not been increased, out of control spending by the district, but has been the changing tax base in the area.
In 2003 – 2004 commercial properties paid 62 percent of taxes in the area and residential properties paid only 37 percent. Fast forward eight years to 2011 – 2012 and those numbers are reversed with commercial properties paying just 34 percent of the area taxes, and residential properties paying 65 percent.
Under the proposed budget, cuts will be needed. If it passes $3.7 million in cuts will be needed. That money will come from the transformation project, which is estimated, will save the district $3.7 million next year. However if the taxpayers do not pass the proposed budget on May 15, then an additional $3.4 million will need to be cut, for a total of $7.1 million.
These extra hypothetical budget cuts will mean the reduction of 26 teachers in addition to the 28 teaching positions already slated to be eliminated under the proposed budget.
So broken down: if the budget passes 28 teachers and six administrators will lose their jobs. These positions are coming from the closing of the two schools under the transformation program. However if the budget is not passed 54 teachers will lose their jobs as well as 13 administrators, for a total of 67 positions eliminated.
In addition to laying off more teachers and administrators, a failed budget will mean deep cuts in districts services for the students as well as community members. Board member Robert Masiello following the presentation, expressed concern that voters would not pass the budget and called on the board to do something to show what a tax increase under this budget would look like.
President Gatti responded saying that doing so is not be possible. She cited that the Town of Haverstraw is still in litigation with the GenOn and would not be able to determine taxes under the levy until the case is settled.
Councilman James Kraus spoke up in response to Masiello saying that good schools are linked to better property values and people want to be able to sell their houses. “We are doing what we can to control costs in the district, and that’s why you vote for this budget,” said Kraus to applause from the crowd.
Eckert echoed Kraus’ sentiments with her response saying, “The community has a choice to make. We’ve done our part and we leave it in their hands.”
The board then opened the floor again to public comments. Diego Aviles again took the floor to address the board. Aviles questioned the board about their use of reserve funds. He asked the board if any more of the reserve could be used for this year’s budget.
This year the board is planning to use $23 million from its reserve fund to pay settled tax reassessments against the district. Aviles also called on the board to use the predicted budget surplus from this year to cover the budget cuts needed for the 2012 – 2013 budget.
President Gatti responded saying that she would not take any more money out of the reserve fund. Gatti said the tax refunds keep coming in against the district. Since 2000 the district has paid $237 million in these tax refunds, and there is still another $65 million in outstanding tax returns filed with the district awaiting a decision in court.
The board plans to use $23 million from the reserve this year and at least another $20 million next year that will go towards these pending tax returns. After that, the reserve fund will be nearly wiped out, and Gatti said that any money from this year’s budget would go into the reserves to help keep the district afloat.
After a brief executive session the board reconvened and took a vote to approve the budget. The motion passed unanimously. District residents can view the budget, and all past budget presentations on the North Rockland Central School District website. http://www.nrcsd.org/
Residents will have the opportunity to vote on the budget on May 15.