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Polling place in a school gymnasium. Photo: <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/hlkljgk/3002212217">Heather Katsoulis</a>, Creative Commons, some rights reserved
Polling place in a school gymnasium. Photo: Heather Katsoulis, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Most North Country school budgets pass

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Yesterday voters across New York State weighed in on local school budgets. The budgets determine school funding and property tax rates for the coming year.

Voters also decided on specific ballot propositions, like funding for libraries, building projects or school bus purchases. And they elected school board members. Reporter Sarah Harris has been watching the process and spoke with Martha Foley about how the North Country's districts did.

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Reported by

Sarah Harris
Reporter and Producer

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Sarah Harris: Most of the region's budgets passed, in part because most of them stayed within the 2 percent tax cap. Gov. Andrew Cuomo offered an incentive program to taxpayers this year, basically giving them a rebate if their school district stays within the tax cap.

Bill Gregory is superintendent of Canton Central School District, whose budget passed. He says the rebate was probably a big incentive for schools and voters: "I do think that boards and administrations were very cognizant of that — it's almost a double whammy because a) you're going above the tax cap to begin with and b) if you do that you're not going to get the promised rebate that was promised to your taxpayers."

Some school districts did ask their communities to override the tax cap. At General Brown Central School District in Dexter, it worked. Their budget asked voters to override the tax cap by almost 7 percent. And voters responded 'yes.'

Martha Foley: Explain what you mean...override the tax cap.

SH: So the annual percentage increase in property tax is capped at 2 percent. When you ask voters to override the tax cap like that, you a 60 percent majority vote for the budget to pass. In Essex County, Minverva Central School district's budget asked voters to approve a tax increase of 13 percent. And the district just didn't get the supermajority it needed. Voters in Long Lake and North Warren also approved budgets that went over the tax cap. Interestingly, Clifton Fine Central School District in Cranberry Lake and Star Lake — their budget didn't pass, even though it only raised the tax levy .5 percent. It's not yet really clear why that happened.

MF: How much of a relief is it for a school if the budget passes, and what does the budget process mean?

SH: Well it means a little certainty for the coming year for administrators, knowing what they'll be able to pay for. But just because budgets passed doesn't mean good news. North Country schools are generally struggling financially. For the past few years, they've received less state aid because of the Gap Elimination Adjustment Act.

A lot of schools have been relying on their fund balances, basically their reserves, to pay for programming. So balancing the budget means a lot of tough choices. In Brasher Falls Central School district, 10 positions, seven of them teachers, will be cut. And in Canton Central School District, they've poured much of their fund balance into the budget. Superintendent Bill Gregory says Canton's afloat for another year. But next year, if there's a big change in the state aid formula, the district should be prepared for major cuts: "Yes, we will hopefully excel in the year going forward and we'll address the challenges on the road ahead as they come to us."

Ultimately, Martha, what I think it boils down to is that school budgeting means hard choices for everybody: for the district, for taxpayers. And those choices impact students.

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