Warning of “tough choices” ahead on spending, Briarcliff Manor school board President Sal Maglietta called Monday for broad public participation in developing next year’s district budget.
With a draft spending plan scheduled for its first public presentation February 25, Maglietta said, “I would strongly urge community members to attend that session, because it is the start of the budget process.”
Maglietta spoke at a school board meeting in the middle school.
“What’s important is that you weigh in,” he told a small audience in the auditorium as well as television viewers at home. “We really need your participation.”
The district’s current $47,650,000 spending plan, approved by voters last May, runs through June. While administrators have begun preparations on a 2013-14 budget—“feverishly,” Maglietta noted—work begins in earnest this month, later than usual.
District officials needed more time “to make a thoughtful and an administration-driven—key word there, administration-driven—budget proposal,” Maglietta said. “This board has given extra time to this administration to figure out how to deal with a series of very, very tough challenges.”
Taxpayers, he suggested, have enjoyed an “artificially...lower tax rate” in recent years. Rather than raise enough in taxes to cover what it “costs the district to run the place,” school boards tapped money—already appropriated but unspent—that officials call “fund balance.”
“The simplistic way to think about this,” Maglietta told Monday’s meeting, “is that this school district and this community have been very, very fortunate to have lots of [fund-balance] reserves over the years.”
But even generous reserves, it appeared, could not keep pace with steady declines in non-tax revenue and mounting increases in district contributions to such things as employee retirement and insurance plans. Stuart Mattey, assistant superintendent for business, illustrated both curves in a series of bar charts designed to highlight budget challenges. In recent years, he noted, the cost of health and dental plans alone have risen dramatically, growing from 15 percent of the total budget to 20.
While not offering specifics, Maglietta said “this [upcoming] budget will force us to make some really tough choices.” But he made clear that responsibility for drawing the spending plan rests with the administration of School Superintendent Neal S. Miller, who is scheduled to begin a terminal leave of absence just when the new budget takes effect in July.
”We need the administration, not the board, to own the budget,” Maglietta said.
The board president called on administrators to present a budget that was “very fiscally responsible...and hopefully within the tax cap.”
In appealing for broad public participation, Maglietta said, “Please, please do come. Share your voice; share your concerns.”
He warned of “dire” consequences should the spending plan fail to pass muster with voters in May. “The worst thing that could happen to this community is a failed budget vote,” he said, “because the consequences ...are dire in terms of what the potential outcomes are.”
Striving to avoid that outcome, district budget makers would benefit from residents’ input, Maglietta said. “The goal is to be tax-cap-compliant,” he told his audience. “They [school officials] are working hard on that. But that may represent tradeoffs for the community to consider.”
That is “why I urge the community to participate,” he said. “There will be tradeoffs. And those tradeoffs need to be understood by the community. We have to hear your voice.”