SHERMAN - The Sherman Central School District Board of Education unanimously approved a proposed budget for the 2013-14 year that includes a tax increase of 4 percent, although it could have gone as high as 8 percent.
The total budget of $8,771,623 represents a 1.87 percent decrease from the current budget. Superintendent Kaine Kelly told the board on Wednesday, April 10 that when the district began planning its budget, it was facing a $500,000 deficit, but it was able to overcome this through retirements and spending cuts in all departments.
"We were able to bridge that gap and maintain all programs and services for the kids," Kelly said. "There were significant cuts across all departments. Everybody is going to feel the pinch as we continue to navigate our way out of this fiscal crisis."
Despite the cuts, Kelly stressed the district would not eliminate any services for the students.
"In these difficult times, we are happy to be able to put forward a budget that is fiscally responsible ... while still being able to maintain student programs," he said. "We are even going to see an increase in course offerings due the addition of a second distance learning classroom.
"We feel very strongly that these types of moves, along with creative shared services, are what is going to keep Sherman Central School able to offer a top-notch education to our students," Kelly said.
In presenting the budget to the board, Kelly noted that, because of exemptions for the state tax cap and a carry-over from last year, the district could increase taxes as high as an 8 percent and still need only a simple majority vote to pass the budget, but he did not believe that to be advisable.
"We are very cognizant of the financial situation of this community," he said. "We did not think it responsible to build a budget based on an 8 percent tax levy (increase). Ever since the tax cap was initiated, the trend has been to take what you can get. However, I don't think it is prudent to ask for an 8 percent increase from a community that is struggling financially."
Sherman District Treasurer Kim Oelhbeck told the board a 4.87 percent increase in taxes would be necessary to balance the budget without taking any money from the fund balance. On the other hand, to have no increase in taxes, the district would have to take $100,000 from its fund balance.
After much deliberation, the board voted to increase taxes 4 percent and to take $20,000 from the fund balance to make up the difference. Other than a 1.17 percent increase in the current budget, this is the first time Sherman has raised taxes in several years.
"We've made significant cuts and eliminated a $500,000 deficit and we are going out to ask for a tax increase," Kelly told the board. "I think it's important that for the first time you are going to significantly raise taxes in six years, you are coming with a unanimous vote."
Kelly said the budget reflects a strong effort to make the district more efficient.
"It's going to cost less to do business around here," he said.
Along with spending cuts and streamlining, Kelly said the retirement of three long-time employees allowed the district to cut nearly $300,000 from the budget. State aid has also increased, he said, but still has a long way to go.
"We appreciate the hard work Senator (Catharine) Young and Assemblyman (Andrew) Goodell are doing on our behalf, but until the fundamental inequity in funds distribution is addressed, there is no end in sight," Kelly said. "It is not about adding more money into the pot, it is about equitably distributing the funds that are available."
In other business, the board heard from District Superintendent of Erie 2 BOCES Dr. David O'Rourke and Assistant Superintendent John O'Connor, who have been visiting all of the schools in the BOCES district to seek input on how the organization can better serve its component districts. They presented the board with a survey inviting comments and suggestions.
Kelly commended the pair for improving the relationship between BOCES and the districts. "Some of the stigma between BOCES and the smaller schools was that of 'Big Brother' watching over them. But these two have gotten rid of that," he said. "They are acutely aware of the needs of small districts."
Kelly also reported to the board that a "lock-down" safety drill had taken place in cooperation with the Chautauqua County Sheriff's Department and the New York State Police Department. Teachers and students were not informed ahead of time of the drill, although parents were told shortly before it occurred to avoid any panic when several police cars arrived at the school, he said.
Kelly said the officials walked the entire building and were "overwhelmingly impressed with our procedure." Teachers followed their training and kept the classrooms locked and silent, even when officials pounded on classroom doors asking to be let in.
Kelly said the trend among law enforcement has shifted from coming the help the victims during an attack to eliminating the threat.
"They (law enforcement officials) walked every square inch of the building and everyone did great," he said.