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school_high120Last week the Lansing Board Of Education got a stark look at the challenges they will face in creating the next budget.  After a year of staff and supply cuts last year they will face even more painful cuts this year to try to bridge a budget to revenue gap of nearly $2.8 million.  District Business Administrator Mary June King sited significantly diminishing state aid, the loss of federal stimulus aid, the loss of revenue from Lansing's biggest taxpayer, limited reserves, and a state aid take-back among the causes of a 'funding cliff' school districts across the state are facing this year.

"The one piece of good news is that when we start planning the '12-'13 fiscal year we don't expect to be seeing that funding cliff that year," King said.  "This is the funding cliff.  We need to survive this."

The school board starts its budget consideration with a rollover budget, the amount of money it will take in the coming budget year to fund exactly what the district already has in the current budget year.    Starting with the 2010-2011 budget of $24,377,906, district officials have calculated it will take a 4% increase to make a rollover budget of $25,353,023.  But projected 2011-2012 revenue is only $22,574,403.

Without adding any new programs, staff, or other expenses, and without cutting existing resources, that leaves a gap of $2,778,620 between anticipated expenses and projected revenue.  That means that if the Board Of Education does not cut significantly, $2.8 million in addition to current tax levels will have to be raised from district taxpayers.

Grimm has spoken many times about the coming 'Funding Cliff.'  Last year's budget/revenue gap was $2,856,941.  But last year the district got money from New York State and stimulus money from the federal government that is not available this year.  Some money came from reserve funds, and over $1 million came from budget cuts that included layoffs, cuts in supply purchases, and some program cuts. 

Nobody was talking about layoffs last week, but it was clear that jobs will be on the chopping block next spring.  School officials noted that they have already cut supplies and materials to the point where they are impacting programs, and that most of the 'cutting around the edges' that could be done was done in last year's round of cuts.  While relatively few of the layoffs involved teachers last year, school officials pointed out that staff cuts have already meant falling behind, and the need for parent volunteers in school offices and elsewhere in the district.  And King warned that the district needs to build reserve funds, especially now that they are being depleted to try to help keep taxes down during challenging economic times.

"I would caution you that the budget figure doesn't include those things we talked about like the $1.3 million we proposed appropriating this year," she said.  "It doesn't include trying to build a capital project reserve, which we desperately need so that we can continue to improve the facilities and take care of things like the septic system.  It doesn't include building other reserves and maintaining a debt service balance."

Last year board member David Dittman advocated cutting more severely to make this year's cuts less painful, saying that the district should have 'bitten the bullet' to get things in order for the new order of leaner state funding.  Last week he repeated that sentiment, saying that systemic changes would have to be made in how the district delivers education. 

Noting that New York is currently the highest taxed state in the United States, he said,  "Going to our taxpayers and saying, 'we're going to allow you to give us more money so we can cover that budget gap' is something they're not going to be real happy with.  We're going to have to figure out a different way to do business.  That's what business has to do, and we're in the business of education."

But Board Member Glenn Cobb said that would be difficult to do given state mandates and regulatory constraints.

"We've got to deliver an education package that meets the laws," Cobb said.  "So, we've got to make change, but I don't think you're going to see a monumental restructuring of how you educate.  I think you'll have to continue to slice, reduce utility costs, reduce transportation costs."

"It's going to be the rationale for things that people are uncomfortable with," Grimm said.  "So we're building a sense of urgency about why some of these other changes will come.  Why you need to walk to a bus stop.  Or why you need to be driven to school if you live less than a mile away.  Or why class sizes are 23 instead of 20.  We're not sure where we're going with that, so we're setting the stage to be prepared for a culture change."

With a small rise in the current assessment, the district will realize a little more revenue in this summer's tax collection than anticipated.  Board members looked for a glimmer of hope there, and Grimm, who sits on the Town of Lansing Economic Development Committee, said planned growth could eventually bring more tax money into the school district.  While such dense growth could bring 'loaded houses' that would increase the number of students -- and expenses for the school district -- new business means new revenue without that extra burden.

"The Town understands that we need to bring in businesses and other types of things to increase our tax base," he said.  "Especially as the AES Cayuga piece has been going down, we need to try to figure out how to replace that so we're not so reliant on it and so that we're not as reliant on residential taxpayers.  So we want to see growth, and Lansing is primed for that."

But it was clear that the board will be struggling with cuts over the next several months, and with significantly less wiggle-room than they had last year.  While the numbers were depressing, Grimm told board members that proactive long term planning will help identify just what the board decides to fund as the district faces the 'funding cliff' that was predicted nearly two years ago.

"You talk about the funding cliff," Grimm said.  "That's this year.  We got an early start on identifying that gap.  Our strategic planning piece, including the superintendent's conference days, is a chance for staff to identify their goals and strategies and priorities.  So we're way ahead of the game compared to a crash course in March to figure out what we can do without.  Instead we're going to apply a funding plan to the priorities we determine."

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