The Comsewogue School District has put together a budget that stays within the tax levy cap yet preserves current programs and services – and which may even carry a lower-than-initially-proposed tax levy increase depending on whether the district receieves more state aid than it's currently slated to receive.
Susan Casali, assistant superintendent for business, called the budget "a rollover budget with minor enhancements."
"Nothing is cut out of the budget," she said.
The proposed budget carries a 3.62 percent spending increase. It falls within the district's allowable tax levy increase. This year that cap is 4.1 percent, largely due to exclusions for state pension contributions, which will increase by 37 percent this year and is out of the district's control. Increasing the tax levy by that 4.1 percent would carry an average increase for homeowners of $265.
"We’re very happy. We really feel like we took a really hard line on negotiations for everything we can control," Casali said. "We set ourselves up to be in good position going forward."
The State Aid Situation
According to a presentation delivered at a recent budget workshop, the district will seek to actually lower its proposed tax levy increase, which would be made a possibility if the district receives more state aid. Casali said the district is benefiting from a budget-to-budget state aid increase of 2.1 percent, though it wasn't enough to completely cover a tax levy increase, and the levels of state aid still aren't what they were five years ago; Comsewogue is still down $15 million since the 2008-09 school year.
The potential exists for the state to restore some "high tax aid," which is a special category of state aid used to help districts with a relatively high amount of wealth. Governor Andrew Cuomo's budget slashed high tax aid across the board, hitting many Long Island school districts hard. Casali said that in Comsewogue, high tax aid was cut from $1,158,000 down to $875,000. But State Sen. John Flanagan, R-Northport, has reportedly been fighting for the restoration of high tax aid.
"I really think we have a good shot at some of that coming back," Casali said.
Changes to Student Programs
Casali also said the controversial reconfiguring of the grades this year under the Princeton Plan proved a successful cost-saving measure that has not been a detriment to programs and services. She said there were a few minor concerns as school started and a few programs and security measures have to be added back – concerns which are addressed within the proposed 2013-14 school budget – but overall the administration deemed it a success.
"We made minor tweaks," she said. "We really were very satisfied with the way the reconfiguration worked. It was tough, but we’ve gotten through it and it worked."
One change that students will see under this budget proposal is the reconfiguration of the zero period for academic intervention services at JFK Middle School, which will be incorporated into the school day.
Among the district's planned expenditures is a new online student information system called Aspen that will be implemented for next year.
"It’s like Infinite Campus, but it’s going to have a lot of enhancement, to save us money in the long run," Casali said. "This year it will cost us a little money, but in the long run it should be [better for the district]."
Overall, Casali said this year's budget process is expected to be much smoother than last year as it will not attempt to pierce the tax cap again, lest it lead to another budget failure, or worse – two budget failures, which would mean a zero percent tax levy increase and $2 million in cuts to programs and services.
"It’s not an option. It just destroys our schools," Casali said. "We can’t take anything away."
She added: "We have a good budget here. We're under the tax cap. That’s where we want to be and need to be."
The Comsewogue School District will hold several more meetings prior to the May 21 budget vote: March 14 and April 1, and also April 8, when the school board expects to formally adopt the budget to put out to vote.