Finding a Fiscal Off-Ramp

ICSD Board trims budget, levies, amid taxpayer backlash

“There are trade-offs… and you cannot have everything.” Home schooling mom Anita Graf, one of 15 who told the Ithaca Board of Education April 16th that the District’s first-proposed tax levy was too high.

by Robert Lynch, April 18, 2024

Katie Apker, Ithaca School Board member, put the question to Board President Sean Eversley Bradwell some three and a half hours after the Board began talking budgets Tuesday night, talking specifically about a nearly $171 Million budget for 2024-25 that many taxpayers despise.  “What are you proposing, Sean?” Apker asked, seeking some direction on whether the Board should trim the proposal or adopt it as is.

“I propose that we go home and go to bed,” a weary Eversley Bradwell answered.

But they didn’t, not yet. A few minutes later, Board Vice President Moira Lang pulled her fiscal compromise out of the ashes of protracted indecision; put it to a vote, and the Board passed it.  And when it did, Ithaca City School District (ICSD) taxpayers got at least a sliver of relief.

Engineer of a compromise; School Board Vice-President Moira Lang

Closing a meeting that began with the closest thing to a taxpayer revolt that the Ithaca district has seen in many a year, the Board of Education, voting eight-to-one, trimmed-down both spending and the tax rate ,  It sent to voters a 2024-25 Ithaca Schools’ budget only a percentage point leaner than the one first proposed, but with its tax impact leveraged downward. 

School Superintendent Dr. Luvelle Brown had proposed the District spend $170.9 Million and hike next year’s tax levy a full 12.14 per cent.  The Board’s compromise trimmed $2,000,000 from Dr. Brown’s total.  It tapped reserve funds to find another Two Million and lowered the proposed tax levy increase to 8.43 per cent.  Maybe it’s not enough of a cut to satisfy the toughest critics, but at least it’s an acknowledgement of attempted compromise.

Ithaca voters will decide the budget in a referendum May 21st.

Residents are saying “this is going to be hurtful no matter which way we go,” Sean Eversley Bradwell acknowledged as the Board agonized over whether to reduce spending by millions or simply adopt the Superintendent’s proposal intact.  “If we can find a balance to minimize the hurt both as an organization as well as to lessen the tax burden on real folks and real families and real money, I would prefer we go that route.”

Tuesday’s marathon meeting started with a line of 16 speakers, only one them an ICSD teacher.  Each took the allotted three minutes to address Superintendent Brown’s proposed spending plan, the one with the 12 per cent tax levy hike.  Spending in it would rise nearly eight per cent over the year.  Only that lone teacher praised the budget.  The other 15 speakers denounced it.

Board President Eversley Bradwell: “Know that you are heard. Know that we understand the situation.”

“I don’t see anything that resembles fiscal management,” Michael Hayes, a senior citizen, told the Board.  “I understand that the Superintendent’s salary is greater than the Vice President of the United States,” Hayes asserted, “one of the highest in the State of New York… that doesn’t make a lot of sense to me either.”

“The community needs some relief,” Jeff Lower told the Board.  Real estate agent Susan Lustick earned audience applause—as did many others of a similar mind—when she took aim at the skyrocketing housing assessments and the rising property taxes that predictably follow.

“People are upset because there’s no rhyme or reason” to the assessment increases, Brian Welsh remarked.  “I think everyone in this room has a responsibility to be loud and vocal about what this budget’s going to do.”

John Rice asked why it costs $35,000 a year to educate a school student in Ithaca, a figure that’s higher than in many other places.  Anita Graf home schools her kids.  She wished she had $35,000 a year to teach each of them.

“There are trade-offs,” Graf told the Board.  “And you cannot have everything.”  Graf continued, “We would like a magic wand, and we would like everybody to have everything that they want, but that isn’t the reality…. I think you have to do more to figure out how to carefully spend what you already have.”

Erin Croyle was the only Ithaca School Board member to oppose Moira Lang’s $2 Million budget cutting compromise.  Before dissenting on Lang’s $168.9 Million initiative, Croyle cast the only vote to endorse the alternative; namely the adoption of Superintendent Brown’s original budget.  Erin Croyle has two disabled students.  What makes Ithaca exceptional, she maintained, is that it hires the staff and spends the money to put special needs students in General Education classrooms—not in Special Ed— and then check on their needs once they get there.

“We’re talking about supporting all students in General Ed classrooms,” Croyle stressed.  “That means smaller class sizes.  That means that in addition to teachers, you have co-teachers, you have integrated co-teaching, you have speech therapists… you have all this extra staff supporting students who have every right to be in those classrooms.”

Board member Erin Croyle: “One teacher is not enough in a classroom, y’all.” And the right teacher can spot the loss of “joy” in a special needs kid.

“The assessments are really kicking my butt,” Croyle acknowledged.  Yet Croyle provided the evening’s strongest defense of high-end staffing, specifically recognizing how instructors at DeWitt Middle School contacted her when her Down Syndrome child had a “mental health crisis.”  Rather than expel her son, Croyle said, they contacted her and did so “because they don’t see the joy that he has.”

“One teacher is not enough in a classroom y’all,” Croyle insisted.  “That’s why it costs $35,000 a student.”

Jill Tripp sat next to Croyle at the Board’s meeting table.  Tripp was thinking that night more about dollars than joyful spontaneities. Tripp floated among the toughest belt-tightening scenarios.  With a deep-slashing 20 per cent cut rejected as to nobody’s liking, Tripp floated both the $2 Million spending reduction eventually adopted, and also a more aggressive $6 Million cut.

“I did not find the Six Million cut undoable,” Tripp said.  And the question, she asked, is, “How much pain (do) we want to cause to get how much savings?”

Most on the Board saw a 6-9 Million cut in Superintendent Brown’s budget a bridge too far.  And the larger cut received little more consideration.

With a 6-9 Million spending reduction, “we are talking about increasing class sizes significantly,” Superintendent Brown warned.  And while he promised any cut would first come in administration—despite a lobbying effort afoot to add associate principals at each elementary school—Brown predicted that in terms of overall staff cuts, “We’re talking about dozens.”

And what about Dr. Brown’s own lofty pay?  He had an answer that some might challenge:

“They can say what they want about my salary, but you’re required to have a Superintendent here.  And if I’m not here, you’ll have to pay a Superintendent a similar salary if you want to look at costs and competition and all that.”

Superintendent Brown’s contractual salary for the present year tops $269,000.  (By comparison, Vice President Kamala Harris might earn a bit more than Ithaca’s Superintendent, but if so, not a lot more.)

“Let’s just acknowledge what we’re talking about,” Board member Eldred Harris put to the record.  “It’s not technology, it’s not computers, this is people.  These are people critical to the mission that we’ve stated that we said we want for our community to have.”

“What’s really the option?” Harris questioned, “To become a different school district, to not satisfy the increasing demands of teachers and children with special concerns?”

Happy Days are done.  Ozzie and Harriet are done,” Harris reminded colleagues.  “We have an increasing number of children coming here in different circumstances; they’re not in dual marital households, they’re not coming to us with all the equipment that we want them to have.”

Eldred Harris: “Ozzie and Harriet are gone.” Fewer kids come from dual marital households. And if we don’t teach them well, more will be homeless, more in jail.

Without a proper, well-funded education, Harris warned, Ithaca could have lower graduation rates, increased homelessness, and more people in jail.

Eldred Harris, of any Board member, came closest to Erin Croyle’s way of thinking.  He seconded Croyle’s motion to ratify Luvelle Brown’s original budget, the one with the double-digit levy hike.  But after he did, Harris voted against what Croyle had wanted and supported Moira Lang’s compromise instead.  Harris is running for reelection this year.  He can feel the political winds.  After the meeting, Harris asked this writer to sign his own nominating petition. (I politely declined.)

The School Board agonized, and agonized, and agonized still more, for well over an hour that night over whether, and if so, by how much to cut the budget.  For a good deal of that time, indecision seemed to win the moment.  State law would have given the Board until April 25th to finalize its figures.  An additional, special meeting seemed more than likely. 

“Ask Dr. Brown to come back with a however-much lower budget,” Jill Tripped asked, suggesting either a reasoned delay or endorsing what the Superintendent had brought before them.

“We need to be more specific about a number,” Lang interjected.  And as Lang moved the ball closer to a decision, verbal equivocation gradually peeled away.

Although the adopted compromise set the overall numbers for the mid-May referendum, the specifics of where the knife will slice to find the $2 Million in savings were not decided that night. 

“I don’t want to get into the minutiae of going line by line,” Board member Karen Yearwood counseled.  And colleagues agreed with her.  Most likely the Superintendent and fellow administrators will exact the personnel and programmatic pain in case-by-case decisions over the summer. 

There were a couple of whipping boys flogged at Tuesday’s meeting.  And both protesting taxpayers and dismayed school board members took their turns.  One was the Tompkins County Department of Assessment, which had mailed property owners letters that attempted to predict—misleadingly—the taxing impact of their assessment increases.  The department based estimates not on next year’s proposed levy, but on the levy attached to the old budget approved last May.

“I did not find the Six Million cut undoable.” Jill Tripp (r) making an argument that others, like Karen Yearwood (l) and Croyle (c) found a bridge too far to cross.

But the second target of attack was the State of New York, which both relies too heavily, most agreed, on the local property tax to fund education, and also employs funding formulas that place a proportionately heavier burden on Ithaca taxpayers than on those in many other districts.

“The wealthier we become, the less our state aid,” District Chief Operating Officer Amanda Verba explained with dismay.  “And the only way we can close the gap is to raise the levy.”

Verba kept checking her phone.  By the time the budget votes were cast, the Governor and State Legislature had not yet come to terms on their own spending plan and school aid formula.  New York’s budget is already a half-month late.

“This is a terrible way to fund education,” Maura Lang said of the property tax.

He earns the Vice President’s pay: “They can say what they want about my salary. But you’re required to have a Superintendent.”

The way we fund education is “not sustainable” and “nowhere near equitable,” Board President Eversley Bradwell conceded.  Yet, fund it through the property tax the Board must, he said.

And as the public prepared to file out of York Lecture Hall and as the hours-long internal deliberation prepared to commence, Board President Eversley Bradwell had this admonition to aggrieved taxpayers in the room and online: 

“Know that you are heard.  Know that we understand the situation, myself and my family included,” he said.  “And we will continue to use our collaborative expertise, empathy, love and wisdom to try to put forward a budget that we think our community can support.”

Will two million dollars in spending cuts and nearly four million dollars in taxation economies, coupled with a reduced 8.4 per cent increase in the tax levy placate an uneasy electorate?  Will it satisfy people like Board members Harris and Croyle who fear kids will suffer as a result?  The May referendum will answer those questions.  

“I will vote.  And I will go door to door to make as many of my neighbors know what has happened,” Jim Meehan, one of those who addressed the School Board Tuesday, promised when it was the 12 per cent tax increase that stood before him.  Will eight per cent still wear down his shoe leather?  Time will tell.