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New State Figures: Scarsdale Schools Under Cap

SCARSDALE, N.Y. – New information from the state about how school districts must calculate their tax levy caps, along with a planned reduction of some budget surpluses, has left the Scarsdale Union Free School District under the 2 percent cap with its original 2012-2013 budget proposal.

That news was delivered by Assistant Superintendent Linda Purvis at Wednesday night's school budget study session.

Wednesday's meeting was the fourth and final in a series of budget study sessions that began with Superintendent Michael McGill's proposal to the board of education. At the time, McGill's budget request came in at between $1.1 and $1.2 million above the state's new 2 percent tax levy cap. Monday, new state information about the formula to compute the cap figure wound up lowering the gap between the budget proposal and the cap to about $900,000. Wednesday, Purvis said, an afternoon web session with the state comptroller has left the district's proposal $123,000 under the cap.

McGill's proposed budget for 2012-2013 was $142,884,284, a 2.77 percent increase over the current year's $138,443,938, which would have created a tax rate increase of about 4.37 percent and would have cost the average homeowner about $660 – $227 of which was the amount created above the tax levy cap. New preliminary figures show a rate increase of about $600 a year to the average Scarsdale homeowner's tax bill, according to district business manager Jeff Martin. Those numbers could change, he said, based on real rather than projected revenues and savings this year.

The news changed the nature of the discussion from whether to try to put a cap override vote before the voters to what cap-exempt projects – mostly having to do with building maintenance and renovations that have been postponed in the past – might be added to the budget. Ultimately, the board agreed to restore $350,000 for plant projects to be determined and $50,000 for a new educational initiative, the Center for Innovation.

"We don't have to be concerned about the tax levy cap, but we do need to come up with a number for the tax rate" before adding projects to the budget, board President Jill Spieler said. Spieler and board Vice President Elizabeth Guggenheimer said they wanted more specific information about the various plant projects before making decisions.

"The tax cap calculation does force us to become more specific if the project needs approval from the state," Purvis said.

Much of the ensuing conversation concerned how much of the growing budget surpluses to put into the budget, and from which surplus accounts the money would come. That money would begin to be applied to the 2012-2013 budget as a way to give it back to the taxpayers.

According to state law, a simple majority of the vote is needed to approve the budget. A supermajority of 60 percent would be needed for a cap override.

Guggenheimer sounded a word of caution, saying that the state could do yet another recalculation and, if it does not budget carefully, the district could find itself back above the cap. "We need to leave ourselves some wiggle some," she said.

Board member Suzanne Seiden said her concern is for the coming years.

"It's hard to believe that we've gone from worrying about being $7 million or $8 million over the cap to this," she said. "I worry that we're going to be setting an expectation with the public,” that the district “will be able to come in under every year.”

Spieler said the board has always been responsible to the tax rate and would continue to do that, as opposed to worrying about the cap in future years.

The school board will present the details of its preliminary budget at the regular board meeting at 8 p.m. Monday, March 5, and will take community comments or statements at the March 19 board meeting. The board plans a budget forum and study session at 8 p.m. April 11 to receive written statements from community groups and to discuss community input. Then, at the April 16 board meeting, the board will respond to the community's written statements and adopt the budget and tax report card. The public will vote on the budget in the May 15 school board election.

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