BURNT HILLS: Residents weigh in on budget

Maintaining small classroom sizes, keeping tax rates workable, supporting sports and special education, and building the fund balance were among the top priorities voiced by residents in the Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake School District Tuesday night at a board of education-sponsored public forum.

Board members received input from about 30 residents, mostly parents of district students, on the most up-to-date version of the 2007-2008 district wide spending plan. The plan calls for a tax increase of 6.1 percent, down from the originally anticipated hike of 12.9 percent. The reason for the drastic drop in what will come out of taxpayers' pockets? Unexpectedly generous New York State aid.

The governor's proposed aid package wasn't released to us until January, said assistant superintendent for support services Jackie St. Onge. "But the plan came out with advantages for us. Last year, we saw just a 1 percent increase in aid; this year, it's proposed at 3 percent, or $400,000 in additional state aid."

St. Onge said district officials are "cautiously optimistic" about the aid numbers staying concrete as the state budget gets tweaked.

"There are some districts adversely affected, such as those in Long Island, and there is still a fight to come," said St. Onge. "They will protest, and that leaves many unknowns."

In its most recent draft, the 2007-2008 district budget stands at $50,383,630, a 7.2 percent increase from the current spending plan.

Among some of the factors board members have wrestled with to maintain a balanced budget are keeping utility costs and staff salaries manageable. The district will save roughly $500,000 this year alone by purchasing health insurance as part of a 15-school-district consortium. All district employees and retirees also pay a portion of their health insurance costs.

The district has locked in low electricity rates until 2010 by joining a multi-year group contract; however, natural gas costs could rise as much as $100,000 in the coming year. Also, diesel fuel costs could rise by 7 percent or $16,000 due to a state law requiring ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel in all school buses. In transportation costs, the excellent safety record of BH-BL bus drivers and mechanics allowed the district to negotiate reduced commercial auto insurance premiums for the 2006-2008 time period.

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