Zero percent increase in district spending anticipated for 2014-15
by Terry Duffy
"... Lewiston-Porter was in the making for a perfect storm."
So summarized Lewiston-Porter Superintendent of Schools Chris Roser Tuesday in response to state Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli's report issued last week, which ranks Lewiston-Porter as the second worst school district in the state in terms of "significant fiscal stress," with a fiscal score of 81.7 on a 0 to 100 scale.
Roser delivered a lengthy presentation at this week's Lewiston-Porter Board of Education session where he outlined the reasons why Lewiston-Porter finds itself in the mess it's in. He led off by pointing out that, "Lewiston-Porter is a fiscally conservative community," with its property owners being very prudent when it comes to approving school budget increases. The district contended with a $40.001 million budget defeat by voters last May that called for a 5.52 percent increase in the tax levy. Lew-Port voters went on to approve a revised $39.6 million budget in June that came in with a 3.95 percent increase in the tax levy.
Roser said the district has strived to keep the tax levy in check for property owners over the years, with a zero percent budget increase in 2008-09, and actual budget decreases of 2.74 percent in 2009-10 and 0.51 percent in 2010-11, followed by modest increases over the past two years.
"Lewiston-Porter repeatedly kept the tax levy low," said Roser, explaining how the board and administration over the past four years have strived to maneuver around the reduced spending dilemma by using reserves in order to maintain staff and have a minimal impact on education.
It didn't work. "We thought the reserves were there," said Roser. We "used our reserves in the bank, in the face of the Gap Elimination Adjustment (a state funding formula to districts, conceived in the Gov. Paterson administration, to enable districts to better handle the constraints of budget spending and tax levy caps). We weren't successful."
Roser indicated that much of the funding mechanism problems (Gap Elimination Adjustment) lie in the state's unfavorable view of the Lew-Port district's valuation schedule of assessed properties in the district (i.e. properties in the towns of Lewiston, Porter, and the villages, hamlets contained therein that Lew-Port derives taxable revenue). In other words, it views the district as affluent and wants Lew-Port property owners collectively to ante up more.
As gross revenues failed to meet budget expectations over the years, the Lew-Port district strived to keep things in check by trimming all the more, Roser said. Its assigned fund balance, a reserve account that once stood at $1.8 million was continually spent down over three years as Lew-Port tried to maintain programs as staffing positions were eliminated and not replaced. It now stands at $0. "Trying to weather the storm," commented Roser.
Positions - teachers, aides, staff and administration - have been eliminated or cut: 43 in 2013-14 alone and 75 axed since 2009. Added to that, the district budget has not kept up to pace on its funding of 105h retirement benefits, other benefits due retirees, and expenditures to BOCES programs, i.e. alternative and special education placements.
"We've done substantial cuts to try to remedy the situation. We took drastic measures (budget-wise) from an all-time high of $41 million (in 2008-09) to $39.6 million (for 2013-14).
"Four years ago ... if Lew-Port would have laid off 75 people or 43 people at that time, probably we'd be in a better place," said Roser in hindsight. "(But) we would not have the programs we have now: the music, the (educational) organization, the athletics, the AP classes."
"There's been a conscious effort on the school district's part to maintain these programs," Roser continued. "They are important. They are extremely important."
Of what's ahead, "It's going to be a long process for our school board this year," Roser continued as he told the members there'll be no increase in spending for next year's budget; at best it will remain flat at this year's $39.6 million, and if anything to expect much deeper cuts.
"How we do that, (maintain quality educational programs with $0 spending increases) I have no idea," said Roser.
"The Gap Elimination Adjustment is crippling Lewiston-Porter," he added.
Roser informed the board that the 2014-15 executive budget proposal released this week by Gov. Andrew Cuomo likely means more bad news for Lew-Port. The district faces a potential in Gap Elimination Adjustment funding of minus $1.807 million for 2013-14, and a likely offset in GEA restoration of a mere $46,000. The proposed GEA restoration ranks Lew-Port as the lowest offered to school districts in Niagara County. Newfane School District numbers, by comparison, are a proposed minus $1.755 million in GEA funding, and a GEA restoration of $282,000.
Roser said the board does understand the "Significant Fiscal Stress" dilemma the Lew-Port district faces. "We knew the elements that caused us to get there. We thought we'd be able to drive a budget to get (to) a new base, but we're going to have to do more. That is not an easy thing to say."
"But there's always miracles," he closed.
The 2014-15 state budget process is just getting underway; how it will ultimately affect Lew-Port remains to be seen. Stay tuned.