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Facing mandate challenges, Frontier district explores 2014 – 2015 budget options

HAMBURG — Many school districts in New York state have recently been ordered to do more with less, and the Frontier Central School District is no different.

Despite sustaining losses of state aid, along with depleted fund balance reserves since 2010, the district has started the process of budget planning for the 2014 – 2015 academic year.

During the Jan. 21 school board meeting, district officials outlined beginning stages of identifying non-mandated program areas to examine.

Interim District Superintendent Paul Hashem reminded those in attendance that any financial numbers projected for the next school year are “extremely preliminary” and far from final realities.

Hashem added that it is the hope of district officials that the 2014 – 2015 budget is one that serves as a blueprint for the following few years’ fiscal plans that are reviewed by the eventual, permanent superintendent. District officials said that they expect a final budgetary submission to be produced by March 25 or April 8.

School Business Manager Richard Calipari presented initial expectations in comparing the current academic year to the next.

The initially drafted 2014 – 2015 budget contains total expenditure revenues at $72,055,445, which represents a decrease of $1,274,676 from the projected 2013 – 2014 summary budget of $73,330,121.

As part of initial projections for 2014 – 2015 expenditures, real property taxes were listed at $35,675,923, an increase of nearly $700,000 from 2013-14 end-of-year projections; $27,410,941 in state aid, a decrease of $446,156; $5,369,429 in Erie County sales tax, a hike of $36,266; $2,349,152 in miscellaneous funds, representing a decrease of $203,056; and $1.25 million in appropriated fund balance reserves, which is $1,361,075 less than the district’s appropriated reserves of $2,611,075 from 2013 – 2014.

Calipari said that the current year’s final, projected miscellaneous funds ($2,552,208) came in higher than initially expected miscellaneous funds ($2,293,984), because the district began collecting rent from the town of Hamburg, on that municipality’s utilizing the Frontier Central Learning Center on Southwestern Boulevard, to go along with stronger-than-anticipated bus sales and the fundraising efforts of the Cloverbank Playground Committee toward the installation of a new playground at that site.

The school business manager added that, during the last three years, state aid to the district has decreased by $20.3 million. During that same time period, Frontier also used $11.5 million from its fund balance reserve account.

Calipari said that combined totals from those two areas equals $31.8 million in lost monies. Employee and teacher retirement system costs are other stated uncontrolled district expenses that have increased over the last decade, before being projected to slightly decrease in 2014 – 2015.

The initially projected maximum allowable levy for 2014 – 2015 ($35,675,923) represented an increase of $706,903 from the budgeted 2013-14 amount of $34,969,020; a shortfall of $479,579 exists from the year-to-year allowable levy hike from 2012 – 2013 to 2013 – 2014 ($1,186,482) and 2013 – 2014 to 2014 – 2015 (aforementioned, $706,903).

The board said that this is because the NYS-directed allowable levy increase for 2014 – 2015 stands at 2.02 percent, compared to 3.51 for 2013 – 2014, resulting in 1.49 percent less of generated monies.

The tax rate per $1,000 of assessed district properties for the current school year stands at $25.20, which was a 75 cent increase from 2012 – 2013.

During the presentation, district officials also cited uncontrolled costs – other than the listed ERS and TRS increases – that have risen, during the last half century; these include milk, bread, gasoline, single and family coverage premiums and first-class stamp prices. The budgeted salaries and benefit amounts for district employees in 2013 – 2014 is $56,414,668, representing 77 percent of the total adopted expenditure budget of $73,215,727.

Program, capital and administrative components are described as being mandated items from NYS, to go along with state aid, tax cap formula changes, the Annual Professional Performance Review, students with disabilities programs, data verification and auditing.

Many non-mandated aspects were discussed by board members as items that could be looked at, in terms of budget portioning. Extracurriculars, school lunch costs, enrichment activities, after-school transportation, athletics, department consolidation, class sizes in all grades, electives offered to all grades, contracted services, after-school detention offerings and advertising policies were areas mentioned by district officials. Board members stressed that these were simply hypothetical items of budget discussion, and not specifically targeted areas of cutting.

Calipari suggested that the district could seek the possibility of establishing a booster club/fundraising group for music and drama club presentations, an initiative currently conducted in Grand Island, rather than footing the bill under budget expenditures. Hashem added that the Starpoint School District had, at one time, cut athletics from its budget, with a booster club’s raising the necessary funds to restore the sports.

The interim superintendent said that it is district officials’ goal to trim areas of non-mandated items as part of budget planning, not to slash.

“[It’s preferable] to maybe not use a chain saw or an axe, but rather a scalpel, to get to the special lumber that we need to get to,” Hashem said. “We want to be transparent and have the board look at many different areas. The board’s got tough decisions to make over the next 2 1/2 months, but it’s part of a process.”

The school board was scheduled to hold another budget workshop on Jan. 28 at the Frontier Educational Center.

Board Member Patrick Boyle said district officials will need to extensively examine all possible areas. “We’ll have to look at the whole list, sort it dollar-by-dollar, highest-to-lowest,” he said. “I can’t see not looking at anything that’s not mandated [by the state[.”

Fellow Board Member Larry Albert described deciding on cuts to program areas as being “a sobering exercise,” while Board Member Thomas Best Jr. added that it’s “disheartening to [discuss] quality education that will be cut.”

Frontier is ranked 10th in administrative efficiency, out of 429 Upstate New York school districts, according to Business First determinations.

Another budget work session for the Frontier Central School Board is scheduled for 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 11 in the Frontier Educational Center boardroom, located at 5120 Orchard Ave. in Hamburg. A regular meeting of the board will take place at the same time and location, on Feb. 25.

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