BY CHERYL SLAVIN
On Tuesday night, May 5, the North Rockland School Board held its final meeting prior to the budget vote scheduled for May 19. School Superintendent Ileana Eckert made the final presentation of the budget, already approved at the prior meeting of April 21. Although the public had an opportunity to comment or ask questions, none were offered.
The budget as currently formulated would grow from the 2014-2015 amount of $208,323,157 to $210,160,879 for 2015-2016. The increase of $1,837,722 represents a 0.88 percent rise. The total district tax levy is projected at $139,671,890, a 1.33 percent increase over last year.
If the budget is approved, Eckert explained, the district would still have to cut a total of 10 staff positions in order to satisfy its financial limits. However, if the budget is not approved, the current budget would remain in effect and the district would have to cut a total of 31 positions to remain balanced. Of the 10 positions slated for elimination, eight would be through regular retirements.
Eckert acknowledged that even though the levy increase would only be 1.33 percent—less than that in 2006—homeowners will experience a greater increase in their school taxes now because of the change in how the tax burden is being carried. Prior to 2006 and the Mirant tax certiorari settlement, homeowners bore only about a third of the total tax levy, and commercial property owners, predominantly the Bowline and Lovett power plants, carried about two thirds. In 2004 the district received almost $50 million in tax revenue from those two sources alone; in 2015 that number has been reduced to less than $2 million.
Accordingly, the tax burden apportionment is completely reversed. Homeowners currently carry about 68 percent of the tax levy and commercial property owners about 31 percent. That 68 percent is then divided among the towns and villages that make up the district, taking into account the state’s equalization rate, a ratio intended to even out discrepancies caused by variances in property assessments among the municipalities. Last year the split between Haverstraw and Stony Point was at 55/45 percent. Using those numbers, the total residential portion of this year’s proposed tax is $94,976,885 of which Haverstraw’s portion would be $52,237,286 and Stony Point’s $42,739,598. These amounts are then apportioned to each property according to the rate set by that town’s assessor.
In addition to taxes, the district receives revenue through state aid, although the state continues to lag far behind in paying what it has committed. This year is a little better, as the state has paid a small portion of what it owes. The district’s expenditures continue to be predominantly for student services—staff salaries and benefits—along with transportation, maintenance and other outlays. Eckert pointed out somewhat ruefully that the district’s debt service, necessitated by the repayments to Mirant for the tax certiorari, is the district’s second highest expenditure. The district will also use $12,264,648 from its fund balance reserves to keep taxes from going any higher. The fund balance, however, continues to diminish and faces the possibility of eventual depletion.
Eckert also made sure to point out, however, that despite continuing financial challenges, the district remains committed to the highest level of education and opportunities for its students, and she proudly noted some of this year’s achievements in academics, sports and the arts. A number of student athletes and athletic teams received certificates of recognition at the meeting for their achievements in county, regional and statewide competitions. A North Rockland senior received a full merit scholarship to the nursing program at Dominican College.
Fieldstone Middle School principal Anthony Zollo also gave a presentation about the school’s ongoing Band Room Acoustic project in which students learn and apply principles of mathematics, engineering and physics while designing an improved acoustic system for the music facilities. The total cost of the project will be about $5,000; the same work, if contracted out to professionals, would have cost the district about $50,000. Not only does the project save the district money, it also affords the students a hands-on learning opportunity not found in many other places.
More information about the budget can be found on the district’s website at nrcsd.org.