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Bedford School Board Narrowly Picks Budget With Tax-Cap Override

Bedford Central's school board
Bedford Central's school board Photo Credit: Tom Auchterlonie

BEDFORD, N.Y. -- By a margin of just 4-3, Bedford Central's school board voted on Wednesday to adopt a proposed 2016-17 budget, which paves the way for it to be decided on in a referendum next month.

The proposed budget, which totals $129,654,885, calls for overriding the state-mandating tax-levy cap. The proposed levy increase is by 3.82 percent, or $4.34 million. A budget complying with the cap would have only allowed for an increase of up to $1.49 million.

Voting in favor of adoption were board President Jennifer Gerken, Vice President Ed Reder, board member Andrew Bracco and board member Suzanne Grant. Voting against adoption were board members Michael Solomon, Colette Dow and Brian Sheerin.

“It is time now for everybody on this board to come together," Gerken said after the vote. "This is the budget that we are putting forth.”

Unlike a cap-compliant budget, a proposed budget with an override requires a super-marjority of more than 60 percent for passage. If the budget fails, the board can schedule a second vote for June, either with the same proposal or a new one. If the second vote is unsuccessful, then the district will be legally required to adopt a contingency budget, which would freeze the levy to its current amount and require $4,345,411 in additional cuts.

The proposed budget is the first with a tax-cap override since the cap was enacted in 2011. The decision to override the cap came as part of an effort to close an $8.8 million funding gap, which was caused by large cost overruns in health insurance and special education.The increase in the levy is coupled with several cost-cutting measures, including a reduction of more than 20 positions and a switch in health-insurance plan administrators; the latter will save $1.5 million.

Earlier measures eyed for cutting, including all modified-level sports and multiple librarian jobs, proved to be controversial and have been removed from consideration.

Under the budget, projected tax rates, which measure what taxpayers will owe per $1,000 of assessed value, will rise by 2.64 percent in Bedford, 4.18 percent in Mount Kisco, 3.28 percent in Pound Ridge, 8.13 in New Castle and 6.56 percent in North Castle. Tax rates, which are not capped and cannot be manually changed by the board, are different due to discrepancies in how the five towns assess their properties. The rates are the byproduct of a state-mandated conversion formula.

Board members have spent the past several weeks diving into financial minutiae, searching for items to cut that would be the least painful. The split vote signaled that there would be no consensus on a a precise list of items to reach the fiscal chopping block. During that time, tense crosstalk among board members had been common, with raised voices abounding. 

Even at Wednesday's meeting, board members spent time tweaking the budget. The only measure that drew consensus, despite the split final vote, involved not cutting a three full-time equivalent positions at Fox Lane High School.

Solomon argued that the proposed budget is not sustainable, as he claimed it will just lead board members to repeating the same process in the future. In contrast, Solomon suggested looking for deeper cost cutting, including more jobs, upfront as a way to head off annual compounding in expenses. 

Solomon has often disagreed with colleagues - several times, amidst tense crosstalk - over the budgetary process and direction. 

Gerken, in contrast, noted that the board's control over its year-to-year expenses is limited, citing benefits and pensions as examples that either can't be readily changed or can't at all. What the board can control and cut, Gerken explained, are programs, even though those are not the cost drivers.

Sheerin, meanwhile, argued that the administration did not adequately break out costs for certain programs, such as for ESOL, which is used to assist children learning English as a second language, along with the cost-benefit of taking in non-district children in exchange for tuition.

The budget is scheduled for a public vote on Tuesday, May 17. Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Polling places correspond to elementary school attendance zones.

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