The Bellmore-Merrick Central High School District must slash $2.2 million in spending from its 2013-14 budget to meet a state property-tax levy cap imposed by Governor Cuomo in June 2011. That could mean a wide range of cutbacks, from the elimination of summer school for all students except seniors to reconfiguring the anti-drug Athletes Helping Athletes program to reducing the number of junior-varsity games that are played in a season.
The proposed spending plan, which now stands at $137.7 million, must be reduced to a little over $135.5 million to meet the tax cap. “Each year it gets more difficult to offset the tax levy…,” said Cynthia Strait-Regal, the Central District’s deputy superintendent for business. “It looks like cuts are going to have to continue going forward.”
At a Board of Education meeting on Feb. 6, Strait-Regal presented a long list of possible program cuts from which the Board of Education could choose to reduce the budget, though none of the cuts would eliminate a program. To date, the list has not been finalized. In addition to program cuts, Central District officials are looking at reducing staff positions, including:
• 11.5 teachers
• One administrator
• One assistant coach
• One full-time and one part-time secretary
• Two Special Education Department assistants
• 11 interns.
And district officials are weighing the possibility of eliminating all Tempo Group social workers. Tempo, with offices in Bellmore-Merrick, the Five Towns and Syosset, provides counseling to teenagers on a host of issues, primarily drug addiction.
As a last resort, officials said, they would cut the nine-period day at the middle schools, returning to an eight-period day, which, they said, would mean the elimination of electives for eighth-graders.
Exceeding the cap
“You can’t keep cutting the budget” without eventually eliminating student programs, Strait-Regal said. That led to a discussion among school board trustees members about the possibility of offering a budget that exceeded the cap for a public vote in future years, though all said that they would stick to the cap for 2013-14.
“We have been cutting as closely as we can without impacting program,” said Trustee Janet Goller. In the future, she said, programs might be eliminated if the district does not exceed the cap, which is on the property-tax levy –– the total amount in taxes that a district must collect to meet its expenses. The state has capped the levy increase at 2 percent, though most districts exceed that by about 1 percentage point, because they are allowed to exempt a certain amount for contributions to the Teachers Retirement System, the Employees Retirement System and capital costs. When exemptions are factored in, Bellmore-Merrick’s total allowable tax-levy increase for 2013-14 is just over 3 percent.
If it exceeds the allowable cap, a district’s budget must be approved by at least 60 percent of voters. If it fails, it can be put up for a vote once more as is, or with reductions. If it fails a second time, spending is capped at the current year’s budget –– meaning spending can not increase at all. That, said Trustee George Haile, would be “a disaster.”
Over the past two years, many school district officials have been reluctant to offer a budget that exceeded the cap for a public vote, fearing that residents would shoot it down and deeper cuts would follow. But, Haile said, further cuts in the future would mean the elimination of “the things we’re so proud of” in Bellmore-Merrick.
Regal said that it is tough to make cuts. “It hurts…,” she said. “We suffer. We suffer.”
Caitlyn O’Hara, a Calhoun High School student-athlete, made an emotional appeal to the Board of Education to preserve the Athletes Helping Athletes program, for which high school athletes make presentations in the elementary schools about the dangers of alcohol and drug abuse. “It’s amazing to see how much they enjoy this program,” O’Hara said.
The Board of Cooperative Educational Services runs the program. District officials said they are looking at the possibility of instituting a local, less costly Athletes Helping Athletes program in place of the current one.
“We are looking at something so that it will continue in some form…,” said Goller. “We, too, recognize the importance of this program.”
Michael Graziosi, a Kennedy High School teacher who lives in Merrick, ended the budget discussion by saying that he believes “the community will respond” if the board decides to exceed the tax cap in the future — and support such a measure.