The following letter was emailed to the community from Superintendent Dr. Brian Osborne yesterday, on the eve of today's (May 15) vote on the budget:
New Rochelle community,
The proposed $272.8 million 2018-19 school budget that voters in New Rochelle will decide on tomorrow (May 15) has become a topic of spirited debate on social media and elsewhere, resulting in much confusing information circulating in the community.
There is an FAQ on the district website that presents the facts on several topics about the budget that are of interest to residents in the City School District of New Rochelle. Below are a few of these Q and A. Please review these items, and to learn more about the plan, find a wealth of information, including a comprehensive Q&A, by visiting http://www.nred.org/
- What is the tax impact of the budget?
The proposed tax levy increase is 3.89%. Based on the tax assessor’s estimates, the tax rate would increase an estimated 4.14 percent. That would result in an increase in the annual tax bill of $507.68 for a home with a market value of about $695,000, the city median (based on the average home assessment in the city of $16,000.) The new tax rate would be $798.50 per $1,000 of assessed value. That’s an increase of $31.73 per $1,000 over the current rate of $766.77 per $1,000. The tax bill for a home assessed at the city average would be $12,776, up from $12,268.32 this year. Owners of less expensive homes would see smaller increases and lower bills; more expensive homes would generate larger increases in the annual tax bill.
- What will happen to STAR Exemptions?
The STAR tax exemptions will not be affected by the budget. If the budget is adopted with a tax levy increase higher than the cap, taxpayers who receive Basic STAR will lose, for one year, an additional benefit, the property tax relief credit. The credit is calculated as a portion of a taxpayer’s Basic STAR savings and is offered in addition to those STAR benefits.
- What happens if the budget fails?
If the budget is not passed by voters, the Board of Education has the option to adopt a second plan to be put to voters on June 19. To stay within the District’s tax cap of a 2.231 percent increase in the tax levy, $3.4 million would need to be cut from the currently proposed budget.
- What’s a contingency budget?
If voters defeat an adopted budget on the second try, the District must adopt a contingency budget. For that, the amount of money to be raised by taxes must be no higher than that of the current budget – $204.4 million. To reach that level, the District would have to cut nearly $8 million from the current plan.
Also, the District would be limited to funding only those costs deemed absolutely necessary to operate and maintain schools.
Measures that would be considered include:
- Stopping the transfer of more than $2.4 million to capital funds – money earmarked for security improvements and to update and improve school cafeterias.
- Elimination of any transportation not mandated for the operation of the schools.
- Barring use of buildings or fields by any outside group unless the entire cost was covered by the group.
- Cutting athletics and other extra-curricular activities.
- Cuts in staff positions, leading to larger class sizes, fewer elective offerings and reduced student support services.
- Shouldn’t we use additional fund balance or reserves to lower this year’s tax levy?
A detailed explanation of the purpose and usage of reserve funds is found in the district’s draft reserve plan. To briefly summarize:
The budget does propose using $1.4 million of the District’s fund balance of $10.9 million.
Fund balances and reserves are important for a district’s fiscal solvency. Appropriate balances and reserves enable a district to secure a favorable credit rating, withstand economic downturn, and protect against known liabilities. The use of fund balances should be limited to protracted economic recessions. During the next economic downturn, the District will need the fund balance to stabilize educational programs and taxes.
While the District is financially stronger than just a few years ago, it faces the same daunting challenges as other school districts across the state. Generally, school districts are facing rising fixed costs that are outpacing slower revenue growth, namely state aid revenue. As a result, many school districts are in the unfortunate position of spending down their fund balances. This is a slippery slope. A low fund balance puts pressure on the quality of a school district’s credit ratings, making borrowing for capital expenses more expensive. By improving our credit rating, we have already saved taxpayers $500,000 in borrowing costs.
Using additional fund balance or reserves in the 2018-2019 budget would merely push the budget gap created by the tax cap to the next fiscal year. At that time, the District would need to address how to fund those continuing programs and operations without the appropriate resources. Utilization of reserves and fund balance requires a long-term view to maintain proper tax stabilization. It is very important when using reserves or any fund balance to keep in mind that using these funds for ongoing operations creates a long-term need to fund continuing programs and operations.
Michael Borges, Executive Director of the New York State Association of School Business Officials, as quoted in The Journal News, says; “This year you’re seeing a smattering of budgets where you are having program cuts and layoffs, which is due to school districts drawing on their reserves and a low state aid increase. This may be the tip of the iceberg this year.”
Factors causing districts to attempt tax cap overrides include a 2018-2019 state budget providing one of the lowest year-over-year increases in Foundation Aid for schools, and districts enrolling more students with disabilities, those whose native language isn’t English and economically disadvantaged students, Borges told the news organization.
- Why not use the $3.5 million noted as anticipated Tax Certiorari (tax cert) payments in the 2018-19 Budget Statement to reduce this year’s tax levy?
The reserve fund for anticipated tax certiorari (tax cert) payments is not intended for use to lower the tax levy. The anticipated payment of $3.5 million is an estimate determined in conjunction with the City of New Rochelle tax assessor projecting tax claims that may be settled during the 2018-2019 school year. Typically, a tax cert case combines claims made for each of several years. The prior years’ funds are locked in the reserves and are not available to be applied to the 2018-2019 budget to reduce taxes. In fact, the use of tax certiorari reserve funds is governed by Education Law Sec. 3651(1-a) and is set up to be used for a specific purpose. It may not be used to finance ongoing operations
The Tax Cert Reserve is funded each year from operating surplus, when possible. (In 2014-15, for instance, no such fund existed, forcing the District to borrow money for the prior year’s tax cert payments.) Based on past settlement rates and consultation with the City’s tax assessor, an appropriate reserve amount is calculated to be $0.30 for every $1.00 of existing claims. Funds must be used within four years of being placed in reserve, unless there are claims that are still unsettled.
Each year a separate sub-account of the reserve fund is created that can only be drawn upon for claims filed during that year. A tax cert claim must be filed in the year that the property in question is believed to be over-assessed. A claim cannot be filed for a previous year.
The settlement year is a future date, but the money will be paid from the reserve claim year to cover the outflow of cash. If the account for that claim year has already been used and no balance remains, the payment for the tax settlement will need come from the current year’s budget. This will require a budgetary transfer and a reduction of funds available for the current year’s program and operations.
- Could the budget process be more transparent?
The proposed budget, with extensive supplemental information, is available on the District website, www.nred.org. Many costs are broken down by school, including instructional salaries, textbooks, computer equipment and supplies and materials such as copy paper, crayons and glassware for science laboratories. Staffing levels and projections are also posted on the site. Some costs, such as special education programs or computer software, are budgeted as a district expense rather than a school expense because they support districtwide programs.
The budget process is far more transparent than in the past. This is evident from various items, including:
1) Vigorous zero-based budget process resulting in a zero-based budget document that is available to the public.
2) Multiple community meetings open to the public and live-streamed for those who could not attend.
3) Lengthy public budget presentations prepared by the administrators and staff members who actually prepared the various sections of the budget (i.e. assistant superintendents, directors, principals, etc.).
Thank you for your interest in making an informed decision, and please remember to vote tomorrow, May 15, between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m.
Brian G. Osborne
City School District of New Rochelle