by Carreen Schroeder
On Dec 21, 2013, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed into law a bill that would authorize school districts to grant veterans an exemption from their school taxes. Tensions ran high on this very subject at the Niagara-Wheatfield Board of Education meeting Feb 12.
Paul Bax, a Vietnam Air veteran and school district resident, spoke passionately about the importance of honoring veterans with the adoption of this tax exemption.
He spoke of his son, a disabled veteran who served his country proudly in Desert Storm. He spoke on behalf of the approximate 1,600 veterans who reside in the N-W school district and urged the school board to take immediate action. With an open invitation for a free lunch on him at the Veterans Administration Hospital to visit the men and women who have selflessly served our country, Bax commanded the board's and the room's attention.
While several members of the board stated they were in favor of the tax exemption, some voiced concerns that it couldn't be done responsibly before the March 1 deadline. In order for the exemption to be implemented, the district must hold a public hearing on the matter and subsequently pass a resolution authorizing the same. This would mean that the board would have to have a public hearing followed by a resolution on how to proceed, all within approximately two weeks.
Other concerns that were raised involved the limited knowledge the board currently had on the potential impact this tax exemption may have on its residents. There was mention of its possible effect on the STAR and Enhanced STAR, rebates and concern was raised that the district may not get back the same amount that it now gets on these reductions should the resolution pass.
Superintendent Dr. Lynn Fusco spoke of how other districts are looking into the veterans' tax exemption for next year's budget to allow them the time it would need to sort all these matters out in a timely and responsible fashion. While agreeing that the veterans should get the maximum benefits that they can, board member Amy Deull likewise voiced her concerns about rushing into a resolution without careful consideration, and recommended the forming of a sub-committee involving board members and veterans so that they could act on something responsibly for the next tax period.
Emotions ran high, with the mention of U.S. Army Specialist Alan N. Dikcis of Wheatfield who lost his life while serving in Afghanistan in 2010, and of Marine Lance Cpl. Timothy G. Serwinowski of North Tonawanda who sacrificed his life in Afghanistan that same year.
Deull stated, "Our vets are a precious treasure," but reiterated her contention that in order to pass this resolution thoughtfully, it needs more time.
Board member Christoper Peters stated, "I'll pay the tax. I appreciate what the vets do for us here. They lay their life on the line every single day."
Board President Steven Sabo spoke of his father's service and made it clear that he would be in favor of passing the resolution this year. Said Sabo, "I'm hearing that the board unanimously believes this is something that should go forward, so I don't see the need to put it as a ballot on that referendum if we feel that it should go forward, because we are the elected representatives of tax payers."
Board member David Brier stated, "It's a disgrace to tell the veterans to wait as the government always has done. It's pushed down to this level, voting on benefits for the vets? I don't even know what to say."
Sabo made a motion to accept the veterans' tax exemptions stating, "I'd love to get it done by March 1." Brier seconded the motion but the motion was ultimately tabled. It will be added as a discussion item under finance at the next board meeting scheduled for March 5.
In closing, Bax approached the board, thanked Sabo for his support and stated, "When you asked for a straw vote, the silence was deafening." To the entire panel, Bax stated, "For those of you who were not aware of the law, that law was signed Dec. 21 and it took effect immediately. This is your third board meeting since that law was signed. Third! What happened? You are the leaders of this community. To put it out for a public vote is a cop-out. If you can't take the heat, get out of the kitchen."
In other news,
•Accolades from N-W residents were given to the superintendent and to the community for their quick, professional and caring response to last week's bomb threat. Fusco and board members made special mention of the bus drivers, the Sanborn Volunteer Fire Co., the food service staff, the Niagara County Sheriff's Office, the Lewiston Police Department, State Police, as well as the district's teachers, administration, parents and children. Fusco stated, "There is nothing like a community that comes together during an emergency." (The sheriff's office has since announced that a 15-year-old student at Niagara Falls High School is accused of making the 911 call.)
•Allison Brady, the school business administrator, calculated a 0 percent tax cap for next year, which means that without a super-majority vote, the district will not be permitted to increase their levy. Fusco stated, "If that (gap elimination adjustment was) restored to this district, we would be in far better financial shape considering that we've been assigned as being in significant distress and then to add on to that, that now we can't raise taxes, - the likelihood of us getting out of the hole becomes exponentially complicated - so if anything, please lobby for the GEA to be repealed."
•Concerns were raised again about the uncertainty of student record privacy with regard to accepting the services of inBloom as the district's data repository. Further concerns were raised about accepting services that although initially will be at seemingly no charge, will eventually need to be paid for and the cost of said services is still unknown. While inBloom's contention is that they are just trying to help schools be more efficient, Sabo's concerns are that "the personal contact of the student, teacher and parent is slowly eroding." Deull reiterated her concerns about student record privacy, about the use of the data to drive commercial products and asked, "Where did this train go off the track?"