Dan Hust | Democrat
During a forum on Monday, Sullivan West Supt. Ken Hilton makes a point about the tough financial challenges and decisions ahead for the school district.
Grim 'financials' for Sullivan West
By Dan Hust
LAKE HUNTINGTON “You’re all going to sleep poorly tonight, and I apologize,” Sullivan West Superintendent Ken Hilton told the school board and a tiny audience Monday night.
The occasion was the SW Fiscal Condition and Future Prognosis Forum, held at the high school in Lake Huntington.
And the word from the captain of the ship was, essentially, “rough waters ahead.”
Take, for example, the estimated tax levy for the next five years incorporating the 10 percent cut in state aid and 19 percent of withheld STAR payments Governor David Paterson announced Monday morning.
According to Hilton’s presentation that evening, SW taxpayers can expect an 8 percent increase next year and a 10 percent increase in 2011-2012, followed by 6.7 and 6.4 percent increases the two years thereafter.
And those numbers, warned board member Angela Daley, “are almost like a fairy tale.”
Why? Because they are dependent upon the district keeping expenses from rising no more than 3 percent a year.
“It’s going to be tough to hold salaries, healthcare costs, and ... fuel to three percent,” admitted Hilton.
In fact, he called the aforementioned tax increases “unconscionable.”
“I don’t know how we can say this to our neighbors and friends,” he remarked, pointing to the figures projected on the screen.
Bits of good news were scattered throughout the presentation, including what appears to be a bottoming out of SW’s decade-long fall in enrollment.
“We’re in pretty good shape compared to a lot of other districts,” Hilton explained, pointing out three “real good years” of small tax increases and a continuing conservatism in budgeting.
Plus, the unexpectedly profitable sale of the Narrowsburg bus garage, a BOCES refund, and current and anticipated legal settlements will buffer harsher impacts.
The district, said Hilton, also remains committed to small classroom sizes and predictable stability in taxes.
But that goal no longer appears achievable without a good deal of pain.
Next year’s budget, after all, is currently estimated to rise just 1.4 percent, but a near-8 percent tax hike will come with it. That’s in part because state aid is expected to be reduced by five percent from last year’s levels.
Board member Rose Crotty frustratedly wondered what would happen if SW simply did not obey state and federal mandates on items she considered nonessential, like the reams of paperwork required by the No Child Left Behind Act.
“If they’re not going to pay, why do we have to shell it out?” she complained of the often-unfunded mandates.
“Why don’t we simply not fill out some of these forms and see what happens?” pondered Hilton, only half-seriously.
“Yeah, and now the governor stops paying our state aid and he’s got a good reason for it!” retorted Assistant Supt. for Business Larry Lawrence, to wearied laughter from the board.
The discussion quickly regained its serious, gloomy tone, however, as Hilton explained that even staff cuts a certainty next year will not stave off a severe curtailment in spending across the board.
In fact, he added, “New York State’s response to the fiscal crisis will probably require us to both cut spending and raise the tax levy.”
It doesn’t help either that SW is saddled with a $3.7 million annual debt payment stemming from the merger.
Utilizing the strategic plan, officials are working hard on finding efficiencies without compromising education, Hilton assured, and the surplus fund balance will be used to offset higher tax increases, but school leaders also seemed certain that a new reality is settling in on public education in the state.
“We’re really going to give ‘shock and awe’ a new meaning,” predicted board member John Reggero.