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Thursday, May 5, 2011

The "B" Word - Budget

There have been many new experiences confronting me as I navigate through my first year as a superintendent. Some have been completely unexpected (quickly submitting the New York State Property Tax Report Card after finding out about it only days before it was due) while others have been expected - with anxiety and worry. Preparing and presenting the school district's operating budget falls into the latter category. Tonight's Board of Education meeting was also the forum for the annual public budget hearing. The meeting offers the public an explanation of the budget in terms of revenues and expenditures, and extends an opportunity for audience members to ask questions.

The budget is a compilation of lists of figures that are essential to the existence of the school but as a document it falls far short of capturing the meaning, value, and purpose of what goes on within the building each and every day. People are inspired by action and feeling, hopes and dreams - not by numbers and charts. Yet, without the financial infrastructure we would lack the resources that fuel the educational engine.

I was nervous. You never know how many people will show up, what they'll ask, and whether you'll be able to respond intelligently to a wide spectrum of potential questions on pencils and pennies. As superintendent, you are the face of the school district. Integrity and communication skills count even more than the ability to recite numbers and explain programs. If people don't trust or have faith in the messenger the message won't matter.

A late notification by the state of a small but significant detail lost within the expanse of the Governor's original budget proposal proved unsettling to us. A week before all school districts were compelled to submit their State Property Tax Report Cards (which requires the adoption of a budget - which sets in motion a proposed tax levy and ultimately a projected tax rate) the state informed schools of a change that has been obscured on the intense political rhetoric pushing for the acceptance of a 2% property tax cap. While many politicians are supportive of a proposed 2% cap on property taxes as a means of saving money for taxpayers, another cap has already been approved. That cap limits the amount of savings homeowners can claim from their STAR (state tax relief program) exemption to no more than 2% of what they saved the previous year. So, homeowners will be deprived of what they would have normally saved beyond that 2%. This in turn means that instead of saving additional money through the STAR program, they will be paying it directly in the form of increased taxes. All the attention on the 2% property tax cap obscured people from learning about this seemingly hidden bit of news. I have yet to see anything in the media about it! This change caused our projected tax rate to more than double, from 1.79% to 4.03%. This isn't good news during tough economic times.

I stressed the difference between spending and investing. Our district has to stop running away by cutting people and programs and instead turn around and search for new opportunities. We emphasized the investment value in the NovaNet (an online credit recovery program designed to reduce drop outs and avoid losing state aid that leaves with each drop out) and Virtual High School (an online menu of challenging elective classes intended to enrich our curriculum and retain our learner population by discouraging learners from walking out of Heatly for larger high schools with a broader array of learning experiences. In short we focused on drop outs and walk outs. Both drop outs and walk outs cause us to lose money. Once we lose money we end up cutting people and/or programs. Once we cut people and programs we invariably invite more learners to drop out or walk out - and then the cycle begins again. It's time to stem the bleeding. We have to take a stand and convince the public we are worthy of their investment and know what to do with their funds to maximize returns on their money.

Anyway - we got through the meeting with just a few questions. There were no ripe tomatoes tossed or unkind words thrown around. I was grateful it was a respectful and polite group of people for my first budget presentation. Now we have to promote passage of the budget so we can move forward and turn the corner.

May 17th here we come.

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