School says budget rests on contract negotiations

CRARYVILLE–Discussion at the March 24 budget workshop of Taconic Hills Board of Education indicates that union negotiations in progress now may play a key role in determining whether the solution to the budget crisis will involve pink slips.

“Until we have a budget we can’t make staffing decisions,” said Schools Superintendent Mark Sposato. “We’re in the middle of the fact finding part of negotiations with the teachers union,” he said. “We’re looking at the big picture. When contracts are settled there are usually raises… . It’s not how much they make, it’s the base salaries and all the add-ons.”

The add-ons, as described by Dr. Sposato, include steps, a term applied to yearly raises of around 2% built into instructional contracts that remain in force even when a contract runs out. A teacher with a master’s degree earns an additional $555; teachers working toward their degree receive payments for each academic credit.

Even though the district gets a preferential rate on health and dental insurance plans purchased through the BOCES/QUESTAR III consortium, these plans have premiums that an individual would be hard-pressed to afford. The district spends $16,000 annually for each single person it insures, a figure that doesn’t include dental insurance coverage, which teachers also get. Family plans cost more.

“People aren’t going to be able to afford to live here. We’ll have double digit increases in the tax levy. If our teachers would pay 50% of their health benefits, we would save two-million per year,” said the superintendent. In that case, as Dr. Sposato indicated at an earlier meeting, the district would not have to rely on staff cuts to balance the budget.

Taxpayers pay 90% of the 264 teachers’ $4-million-plus health coverage, which has gone up 12.73% in the past year. Dental insurance is up 13.8%. A single teacher pays 10%, or $1,600, per year for health insurance. If teachers agreed to pay 50%, each would pay $8,000, or $666 per month, not including their share of dental insurance. The share teachers pay can only be changed through collective bargaining, said the superintendent.

Other rising costs include BOCES, whose charges went up 4.47%, and employee retirement costs, which rose 17% during the past year. The district now supports 239 retirees. Unemployment insurance is also going up.

“We’re hitting the wall. We’re in the warning track,” said Board President Ronald Morales of the financial bind facing the district.

“This is probably one of the lowest paid school districts in the area,” said board member George Langonia, Jr. “We don’t have the option to cut benefits the way a business might. We have a senior staff. They have been here a long time. People have liked it here and stayed,” he said, referring to the fact that teachers with seniority have higher salaries and benefits.

This year the state cut $2 million in educational aid to the district while the budget went up $2 million. Enrollment dropped from 1617 to 1587 this year.

The proposed budget, which the superintendent has called “acceptable,” calls for 11.19% in cuts, with a 4.89 tax levy increase. “This is a contingency budget even now,” said Dr.Sposato of the $21,052,890 proposed tax levy, which he pointed out is lower than a contingency budget linked to the consumer price index, which would kick in if the public votes down the proposal. Contingency budgets also impose certain austerity measures.

Under a contingency budget, if the public wants to use the school for a fundraiser like the annual Pow-Wow night, which raises money for scholarships, organizers would have to cover all costs, including lighting, maintenance, insurance, electricity. Those costs might be prohibitive for some groups. The same applies for use fees for the fitness center and pool.

“On April 21 the school board will decide on the actual dollar amount of the budget, what they need, and what we can live without. We’d rather keep the people than have the extra perks,” said Dr. Sposato.

The budget vote is set for May 18.

Facts and figures outlined in the school budget can be found on-line at www.taconichills.k12.ny.us

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