Linden Ave Middle School

Red Hook schools face hard budget choices

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With the Red Hook School District facing its first year under the new property tax cap, Superintendent Paul Finch, budget officer Bruce Martin and the Red Hook School Board have some difficult decisions to make.

Like many school officials across the state, Finch has been an outspoken critic of the system under which the tax cap and existing state mandates are in conflict. As a result,he said, every year Red Hook schools will face a shortfall of approximately $700,000 when considering a rollover budget — a plan that would only maintain the current level of services year-over-year. The new mandate, passed by the state legislature last year, calls for a 2 percent limit on property tax hikes.

“When we were [projecting that] health insurance would go up 8 percent on average every year [for district staff], that represents every dollar we can raise under the tax cap,” Martin told the Red Hook Observer.

This year, the district was able to secure a lower health insurance increase and a modest rise in state aid to bring down the gap.

Even so, this year’s budget hole is $565,000 to stay under the tax cap.

“We’re trying to do things first that impact kids the least,” said Finch.

Due to demographic trends, the district is planning one less class at the elementary school and looking at a retirement or two in the district to reduce staff by attrition. One or two additional retirements would allow the district to hire new teachers with lower starting salaries for additional savings.

“We’re also looking at some consolidation in transportation and facilities,” said Finch. “So we’re going to eliminate one bus run and we’re going to eliminate either a custodial or groundskeeper position. That gets us fairly close to $565,000….with minimal impact on students.”

While early reports discussed the possibility of further cuts to the sports programs or kindergarten, it appears they will be spared for another year. But, school officials said, that will happen only if the budget passes.

“[Sports] is on the table for the conversation about cuts every year. We cut the junior varsity schedule last year, we cut assistant varsity coaches the year before,” said Finch. “[But] if the budget [vote] fails twice, then we’re at zero [percent increase] and we’re looking for another $750K. Then we’re talking about [cutting] big things that everyone holds dear here in Red Hook: kindergarten, athletics, foreign language, the arts, advanced coursework.”

According to Finch and Martin, sports programs cost the district about $350,000 per year and the seven kindergarten sections cost nearly $600,000.

While the projected increase in school property taxes will likely be significantly lower than in previous years, Superintendent Finch has no idea how voters will respond in this post-tax cap era.

The district budget for the 2012-2013 school year is still being developed. The board is scheduled to present a budget for the public to consider at the next meeting on April 12. The superintendent and budget officer will appear before the PTA, PTSA and the town board between now and the budget vote on May 15 to present the final budget and to answer questions from the public.

“It is uncharted territory. We don’t know how the voters will respond,” said Finch.

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