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As Lakeland Budget Nears Deadline, Cap Questions Continue

What constitutes a 2 percent tax hike, really? Is it 2 percent, or some other number?

Already counting down the weeks to budget adoption, school finance officials continue to grapple with some elusive provisions of Albany’s new tax cap.

And while the Lakeland Central School District expects to adopt a budget comfortably under the cap, some districts elsewhere find themselves in a fiscal fix. Struggling or not, districts everywhere appear to have questions about the cap, successfully sold by Gov. Andrew Cuomo as an answer to rising local property taxes.

Enacted by the legislature last year, it slapped Cuomo's recommended 2-percent ceiling on local property-tax increases.   

"We're still trying to figure out what the governor is talking about when he says 2 percent," said Raymond E. Morningstar Jr., Lakeland's Assistan Superintendent for Business. "It is not a 2-percent cap. It’s a 2-percent 'or-or-or' cap, and we’re trying to figure out what 'or-or-or' means."

The law’s details, he suggested, continue to bedevil finance officers. "We’ve had webinars, workshops and work sessions, and so far we still don’t have all the answers," he said.

Still, no matter how they look at Gov. Cuomo's statements, he said, the district is going to be OK.

Morningstar said the only question for Lakeland would be how much below 2-percent it would be. He said the district is one of the few not struggling to stay under the cap. Elsewhere some districts have had to lay off as many as 50 employees to slash spending aggressively enough to come in under the cap.

"We’re not in that situation," Morningstar said. "I think if we do things right, we’re going to be OK for the next couple of years."

Superintendent of Schools Dr. George Stone said he could "understand the desire to have a cap on taxes, but if we don’t balance the issues, it’s going to be the same kind of thing, year after year: reducing [spending] further and further until there’s nothing left to take from."

While "the cap" is nominally fixed at 2 percent over the prior year’s levy, a welter of exceptions, adjustments and exclusions can raise the final figure by a percentage point or more yet remain within the law’s strictures. A district may also present to the voters a budget that exceeds the cap, but it must announce that fact and it must obtain the approval of 60 percent of the voters, not just one more than half of them.

Core Curriculum Standards advance

Christopher Ruggiero, director of the math curriculum for grades K-12, updated the board on his progress in meeting the state’s new Core Curriculum Standards.

Part of a national effort, the standards are designed to define an essentially uniform, coast-to-coast level of minimum educational excellence. So far, New York and 43 other states have agreed to install the standards, which spell out what students are expected to learn before they graduate. Each district, however, will continue to design its own curriculum, tweaked as needed to accomplish the educational goals prescribed by the standards.

Ruggiero likened Lakeland’s changes to those of "a house being remodeled, not built from the ground up." The curriculum will remain "pretty much" the way it is now, he said, with a few differences.

SPK February 21, 2012 at 01:14 AM
The time to have prepared for a spending cap was two years ago. Other districts are starting now...not many options other than terminating staff.
Dan February 21, 2012 at 02:15 AM
Just a shame how much money is allocated for outside staff development. Just llet teachers create more meaningful workshops rather than bringing in a company from out of state. A company who didn't even know New York standards. Hire people to do curriculum who know it. Would save districts tons.

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