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School officials leery of state plan for property tax freeze

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A plan that would offer rebates to taxpayers in school districts that keep tax increases at less than 2 percent has north country officials worried about having to make further cuts in programs and staff that already have been slashed in the last several years.

The state tax commission plan, endorsed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, would use surplus funds to give the rebates to residents living in districts that stay below the 2 percent cap. Since voters have to approve school budgets, officials fear the plan effectively will ensure that districts stay under the cap.

“If there’s going to be a surplus at the state level, why not just provide a reasonable state aid proposal, in combination with the current tax cap, than to introduce a system like this which seems gimmicky?” said Thomas R. Burns, superintendent of the St. Lawrence-Lewis Board of Cooperative Educational Services.

The two-year tax plan guarantees the rebates in the first year, but schools and municipalities would have to take “meaningful“ steps to share services or pursue mergers for taxpayers to qualify for relief in the second year.

Mr. Burns said he agrees with an assessment by Robert F. Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents, who in an email to school officials said the proposal would pit schools and voters against each other. District leaders would face a choice: deny residents tax relief or give up revenues needed to preserve programs and services.

Jack J. Boak, superintendent of the Jefferson-Lewis Board of Cooperative Educational Services, said he hasn’t learned anything from Albany about the specific details of the proposal and said “the devil is going to be in the details.”

“This very well might be a negative issue for schools. School districts are dependent on property taxes for their budgets; it’s their lifeblood,” Mr. Boak said. “I am just wondering how they’d make up for the lost revenue that would go to the schools.”

Mr. Boak said his opinions, as shared by many administrators, cannot be established until the legislation is written out.

“Usually at this point we would have gotten something from the state about a proposed bill. I only know what I’ve heard from the press,” Mr. Boak said. “There’s an awful lot implied in what has been proposed.”

Watertown City School District Superintendent Terry N. Fralick said he is unsure of specifics with the proposal.

“I don’t know how it would specifically affect our district. Until I get something concrete I can’t say anything about it,” Mr. Fralick said.

The requirements for the second year of the rebate program — making meaningful progress in structural cost savings — are efforts many north country schools have been making for some time.

In the north country, many school districts have been sharing services for several years, including contracting with BOCES to share instructors, business office functions and health insurance. Some districts already have launched studies to explore the ideas of regional schools or mergers.

Canton and Potsdam school districts are in the midst of a $48,000 study to examine the feasibility of merging. A joint committee of residents in both communities has been meeting monthly with consultants hired to conduct the study.

Patrick H. Brady, Potsdam Central’s superintendent, credited the governor with making efforts to reduce the property tax burden, but questioned how Mr. Cuomo plans to fund public schools in the next state budget.

He noted that many districts are receiving less state aid than in 2008-09, despite rising costs in pensions, health insurance and other areas. In his district, about 50 jobs were cut over the past five years, as were student programs.

“The governor’s tax relief proposal will most certainly place pressure on school districts to stay within the tax cap so residents can enjoy a tax rebate check,” Mr. Brady said in an email. “However, if adequate funding is not provided by state aid, which is the only other major source of money for schools, there will be continued degradation of staffing, programs and opportunities for students in schools that have no choice but to rely on this aid.”

The Potsdam district has taken several measures to cut costs by sharing a food service director, superintendent of building and grounds and technology personnel with other school districts through contracts with BOCES.

A school superintendent in Lewis County said it is probably too early to know the real effects of the commission’s proposal.

“It certainly would be nice” if the initiative provides true tax relief while allowing the district still to cover expected cost increases, Beaver River Central School District Superintendent Leueen Smithling said.

However, Mrs. Smithling said, the offer almost sounds “too good to be true” and she has yet to get any specifics on the proposal or discuss it with the district’s business manager.

Negotiations also are underway with a pair of unions, and budget deliberations at this point are very preliminary, she said.

Even state education officials are uncertain just how the tax commission’s proposal will affect schools.

Antonia Valentine, media relations specialist at the state Education Department, said no informational materials have been supplied to New York schools since Mr. Cuomo announced the proposal.

“Because this matter involves pending litigation, we cannot comment,” Ms. Valentine wrote in an email. “Any changes to the tax cap would have to be done statutorily by the Legislature and Governor.”

Ann M. Adams, superintendent at Hermon-DeKalb Central School, said her district has a community committee that’s exploring ways to cut costs, but there’s little left to trim. The district has made about $1.2 million worth of cuts over the past three years and already contracts with BOCES for a speech therapist and other shared services.

Compared with the state’s high-wealth districts, a tax cap particularly hurts rural districts that have small property tax bases, she said.

“In one district, a 1 percent increase may generate $22,000. In another district, that 1 percent could generate hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Ms. Adams said. “We have been cutting programs and staff over the past five years.”

Her district also explored setting up a regional school with Heuvelton Central and Morristown, but there is no state legislation in place to allow such action. Earlier this year, the Gouverneur Central School board decided it was not interested in merging with Hermon-DeKalb. Differences in tax rates and geographical distance were cited as reasons.

In Lewis County, the Beaver River superintendent said, true school consolidations would be difficult for school districts, given the large geographical areas they already cover, but shared services are being considered between individual districts and through the Jefferson-Lewis BOCES.

“We’re already there and already talking about it,” she said.

Canton Central School Superintendent William A. Gregory said when districts propose budgets that exceed their property tax levy, it’s typically because there is insufficient aid or reserve funds to support the school’s educational programs and students.

“If taxpayers of a given school district will be penalized for approving a budget that exceeds the cap, I believe that the proposal may have the effect of precluding school districts from proposing such budgets, even though there may be compelling reasons for doing so,” Mr. Gregory said in an email.

Times staff writers Steve Virkler and Katherine Clark contributed to this report.

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