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BETHLEHEM — On Tuesday, April 10, the Bethlehem Central School District Board of Education unanimously voted to adopt a $98.8 million budget for the 2018-19 school year. The budget not only increases spending by 1.7 percent but also carries a proposed tax levy increase of 2.4 percent, which will net the district an additional $1.5 million while remaining below the state-mandated tax cap. It is BCSD’s sixth consecutive budget with a tax levy increase that has remained under the calculated cap.
The tax levy, the total amount of money the school district collects from property taxpayers, essentially determines the tax rate, or how much a homeowner will pay in school property taxes. That rate, however, is also affected by town-wide assessed property values and state-determined equalization rates in districts serving more than one municipality.
Both the towns of Bethlehem and New Scotland, 90.74 percent and 9.26 percent of the district respectively, saw decreased equalization rates in 2018 and an increase in total assessed property values. Based on those factors, BCSD estimates that New Scotland residents will see a 1.29 percent decrease in school taxes, to the tune of approximately $27 per $100,000 in assessed home value, while Bethlehem residents would pay 1.78 percent more, or about $37 per $100,000 in assessed home value.
As tax rates are finalized in August, after town assessment figures are finalized and new equalization rates are set, the district stressed that the aforementioned figures are merely estimates.
After preliminary budget calculations identified a $3.3 million shortfall, a series of considered modifications and a $161,000 boost in state aid brought that number down to $1.5 million by the end of March. During the April 10 board meeting, members were asked to consider three possible options to cover the remaining deficit. The option they chose increases the tax levy by the full $1.5 million and would require no additional spending reductions.
No real consideration was given to raiding the district’s fund balance, expected to be just under $20 million at the end of 2017-18, to make up the shortfall, which BCSD said is, “consistent with the district’s long-term fiscal planning.”
“This budget presented more challenges than we have seen in the last few years,” said BCSD Superintendent Jody Monroe. “Despite the volatility we experienced with some of our mandated costs, the budget we have proposed and that the board has adopted, preserves the instructional program we have been carefully rebuilding in recent years after a prolonged recession and related budget cuts.”
The district has credited large increases in mandated pension, health care and special education costs (for students receiving services outside of Bethlehem) with the bulk of the $1.67 million budget increase. Officials were able to identify savings in several areas including: utility costs; transportation overtime and gas costs; and “breakage,” decreased salary costs as newer employees replace longtime employees who earn more. (According to the district, a total of 27 faculty and staff have announced retirement this year.)
Overall staffing numbers will be reduced as well, based on decreasing enrollment projections and student needs, according to the district, with reductions to be accomplished primarily through attrition and reallocation of staff.
If approved by voters in May, the budget would: maintain educational programs and services; reduce approximately seven full-time staff positions; move 3 full-time Special Education staff (where enrollment has also declined) to the elementary and middle schools; provide elementary science kits; restore a Friday late bus for middle and high school students who want to participate in after school activities; increase security at the elementary and middle schools; and provide a $200,000 buffer to accommodate for potential variations in Special Education costs.
Also on the ballot in May, there will be a proposition to replace 15 aging school busses, for a cost not to exceed $1.2 million.
Voters will also elect two new members to the Board of Education, as both Lynne Lenhardt and Charmaine Wijeyesinghe have decided not to run for reelection. Candidates will be announced after the April 16 deadline for returning candidate petitions.
The budget vote will take place on Tuesday, May 15, between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m. in Gym “A” at Bethlehem Central High School, located at 700 Delaware Ave. in Delmar. Voters can meet the board candidates on Tuesday, May 1, in the BCHS cafeteria at 6:30 p.m., and there will be a public budget hearing on Wednesday, May 2, in the BCHS library at 7 p.m.
Editor’s Note: Other local school districts are expected to adopt budget proposals on Tuesday, April 17. Look for details about those online at spotlightnews.com or in upcoming print editions.