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Letter: To challenge or not to challenge the school budget tax cap

Editor, The Spotlight:

School districts face a unique challenge this year in the budget process. In addition to the many difficult choices the Bethlehem Central School District community usually faces when developing budgets – what cuts should or can be made, how they will affect students, how it all will affect the community at large – there remains an overarching question this year that we have never faced before: Should we or shouldn’t we exceed the tax levy limit imposed upon us by the state’s so-called “tax cap” law.

The law itself is confusing. It has been misconstrued and misrepresented as a “2 percent tax cap” when, in fact, the law does not restrict any proposed tax levy increase to 2 percent. Instead, the law determines what level of support is needed for a school budget to pass. If the tax levy increase is above the tax levy limit—in our case. 2.94 percent—the support of a supermajority (60 percent) of voters would be required for budget passage. If the levy is within the limit, a simple majority is needed for budget approval.

We are facing a budget gap of $7.7 million. If BCSD proposes a 2.94 percent increase in the tax levy, we will have to eliminate about $4.2 million from our current budget. For those who have attended our forums and budget workshops thus far, you know that we are considering reductions in service or outright cuts in all areas of our budget: Athletics, Transportation, Administration, Special Education, Operations and Maintenance and, of course, Instruction. If we challenge the tax levy limit (the so-called “cap”), the reductions in services and/or programs will be less severe. Therefore, the question for us remains should we or should we not challenge the cap?

Preliminary numbers show that if we were to propose a tax levy increase of 3.94 percent (1% above the cap), our budget gap would be $3.7 million; if the gap is reduced to approximately $3.1 million the levy increase is 4.94 percent (2% above the cap) with the gap continuing to be closed by $570,000 for every additional one percent over the cap. To keep this all in perspective, if the district were to close the $7.7 million budget gap using only tax revenue, it would have to levy a 13.5 percent increase. I think we can all agree that this is not feasible or responsible. There is one constant, however, throughout this entire process, it is that what defines a Bethlehem education will change next year. These cuts, even at a tax levy beyond our state-imposed “limit” will not stave off all our potential reductions, but rather minimize them from the severity that has developed through financial distress.

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