Recast ICSD budget to hover levy below Tax Cap

The “Vote to Revote;” Ithaca’s School Board May 28th sends a modified budget and bus purchase package to a June referendum.

by Robert Lynch; May 29, 2024; expanded reporting now posted

While it left details to be resolved later, the Ithaca Board of Education late Tuesday strongly signaled that a revised Ithaca City School District Budget (ICSD), to be submitted voters June 18th, will carry a tax levy increase no higher than the New York State tax cap, an increase well under that of the initial nearly $169 Million budget Ithaca voters resoundingly rejected one week earlier.

Not a happy budget night: Erin Croyle; she wanted more; must settle for less.

Near the end of a more than three-and-a-half hour public session, the Board (with one member excused) voted unanimously to put before the electorate next month the trimmed-down budget, together with a modified bus purchase option, one only half as costly as the package that was also voted down in last week’s referendum.

“It meets what I was looking for, and it meets my understanding of what many of our public correspondents (community members) have been looking for,” School Board member Jill Tripp, this year’s chief ICSD budget hawk, said as her colleagues coalesced around a $163 Million revised spending plan, one that would hike the tax levy only 2.92 per cent.  Its spending would rise 2.79 per cent over the year.

“So I’ll just say, to be brief, that I would support the revote option under the tax cap,” Tripp told colleagues.

Tripp’s endorsement, if carried forward to a final School Board show of hands next week, could prove critical.  Many Ithaca School District voters respect Jill Tripp’s fiscal frugality.  They listen to her words.  And Dr. Tripp’s support could drag many more votes the revised budget’s way.

By contrast to the “tax cap option” given the most serious consideration Tuesday, the proposed budget Ithaca’s voters rejected at the polls May 21st would have raised the tax levy 8.4 per cent.  And an initial proposal offered by administrators earlier would have boosted the levy by more than 12 per cent.

Some Board members—most notably Eldred Harris and Erin Croyle—grumbled about the cuts necessary to make the new budget work.  The “Revote Budget” as it’s being called, would cut an estimated 22 teaching positions from those at present, or 39 teachers from what the rejected budget would have supported.  Administrators predicted all cuts would be absorbed through attrition.

One top-level administrator would also be eliminated, the position’s identity not specified.

The Board will reconvene in a week—probably Monday, June 3rd— to finalize the revised budget’s details.  Members Tuesday resisted their only likely alternative, a so-called “Contingency Budget.”  It would have cut spending still deeper.

Two Board members—Adam Krantweiss and Garrick Blalock—opposed resubmitting the bus purchase measure in any form, Blalock fearing its mere presence on the ballot could sink both propositions and force the ICSD into state-mandated austerity.

Board Pres. Eversley Bradwell on the “Revote Budget”: Not a budget I want, but “an absolute budget that I can support.”

As they haggled over details during the final hour of their meeting—as 11 PM came and went—the revised transportation proposition would now buy only half as many buses as previously proposed.  Instead of four electric buses, the District would purchase two; and instead of four “ultra-low emission propane buses,” it would buy just two.  The proposition would tap only $1.6 Million from a capital reserve fund, not the$3.2 Million that voters had rejected May 21st.

And although it would normally have gained top-billing at any other meeting, the Board also welcomed a late-filed Resolution submitted by Board member Jill Tripp that would direct the Superintendent to negotiate a “memorandum of agreement” with Cornell University to pay $10 Million to the ICSD annually in lieu of taxes.

In accordance with its procedure, the Board, as its final order of business, accepted Tripp’s proposal, but laid it on the table for action at a future meeting. 

Tripp, a frequent advocate of increased Cornell support of the School District, stated in the Resolution that the university’s support would formalize the “mutually-beneficial symbiotic relationship” between Cornell and Ithaca’s schools.

Cornell voluntarily contributed $650,000 to the ICSD in 2023 (up from $500,000 the year before), according to a report last August in the Cornell Chronicle.

Seventy-one percent of those who participated in late-May’s high-turnout Ithaca School District election voted against the $168.9 Million dollar proposed budget and the double-digit tax levy hike it would have carried.  They also voted out of office two of three Board incumbents who’d sought reelection.  A half-dozen of those presumed disgruntled voters appeared before the Board of Education Tuesday to continue their critique.

One of the critics; Jim Meehan: We didn’t give you “a blank check.”

The Board’s public speaking rules prohibit referencing employees by name. Yet none too subtly, several speakers focused their attention on the person at the top, School Superintendent Dr. Luvelle Brown.

“This Board is a lame-duck board,” Michael Hayes asserted.  Hayes urged the Board delay any vote on extending Dr. Brown’s four-year contract until new Board members assume office in July.

Last month’s vote was a “signal,” speaker Megan McDonald reasoned.  “It’s time to look for a new leader with a different set of skills,” she insisted.

“That budget was out of line, and it had no definition behind it, like we were giving you a blank check,” speaker Jim Meehan told the meeting.

Once the public had spoken, the Board’s budget defenders—most notably, Erin Croyle and Eldred Harris—took their turns at the mic.  15-year incumbent Harris, African-American, was among those voted off the Board last month.

“You want to talk about a contingency budget?” Harris asked, “I want to talk about kids who don’t see a way out, hitting people over the head on the Commons.”  Harris continued, “You want to talk about a contingency budget?  I want to talk about less of our students going on to college; less being prepared for the workforce.”

Eldred Harris talked of a community—our community—that finds itself “caught in a terrible middle.”  Tax-abated developments stand on one side; rising poverty on the other.  And “to put this on the heads of children is abnormal.” Harris said.

Departing Board member Eldred Harris: “You want to talk about a Contingency Budget? I want to talk about kids who don’t see a way out.”

“We are not immune to inflation,” Erin Croyle responded to the community’s cost-conscious budget critics.  And reflecting on a recent New York State evaluation that faulted Enfield Elementary as well as both of Ithaca’s middle schools for poor performance, an emotion-bound Croyle declared, “Our schools aren’t failing the students, our society is failing the students.”

No member of the Ithaca School Board Tuesday night had the audacity to resubmit to voters the same budget as they’d rejected by a more than two-to-one margin a week earlier.  And although they never voted their formal rejection, Board members tacitly cast aside an option administrators had earlier offered.  It would have tied a trimmed-down budget’s increase to the Consumer Price Index.  The “CPI Budget” would have hiked spending by 4.1 per cent and the tax levy by nearly five per cent from the current year.

“The clear message that was sent,” Board President Sean Eversley Bradwell said, opining on the voters’ verdict, “was not lost on anybody.”  And with those words, he steered colleagues away from the CPI Budget and toward the less-costly one, its levy in line with the tax cap.

And to underscore the Board President’s preference, when District Chief Operating Officer Amanda Verba presented to the meeting her PowerPoint, she’d already scratched a line across the “CPI Budget.”

“A CPI Budget is not tenable at this time,” Eversley Bradwell said.  Others on the Board might have thought differently.  But no one chose to lobby in its favor.

The tax cap-tied “Revote Budget” will demand administrators cut $5.7 Million in spending from the budget rejected in May.  A “CPI Budget” would have required $3.8 Million in cuts.  The more austere “Contingency Budget” would impose a $9 Million reduction.

No clearer statement of Board sentiment than Administrator Verba’s PowerPoint slide: The “tax cap” becomes the starting point. Contingency is the alternative.

The Tax Cap budget will require only a simple majority to pass in the June 18th referendum.  The CPI Budget, like the one previously rejected, would have required 60 per cent approval.

Aside from the 39 teaching positions pared from the earlier budget to support this new one, cost-cutting options administrators propose in the tax cap-tied Revote Budget include a suggested 17-student minimum class size at the elementary and/or middle and high school levels.  It’s a limitation that could restrict some upper-class course offerings.

Other economies include a 22 per cent reduction in administrative labor costs, and what Verba called “vacancy control,” pausing the filling of many vacant positions.

“In terms of the executive team, there will be fewer of us,” Verba and Deputy School Superintendent Lily Talcott made clear.  Names were not mentioned.

This current year, ICSD has budgeted seven administrators within its topmost ranks.  The revised budget would cut them to six.  The District currently has 581 teachers in its budget.  The “Revote Budget” would trim them to 559.


“While this is not a budget I want, this is an absolute budget that I can support,” Sean Eversley Bradwell said of the tax-cap limiting option, admitting quite clearly, that the perfect to him cannot be the enemy of the good.

And if the “Revote Budget” were to go down June 18th, state law would mandate a Contingency Budget take its place.  That’s an option the Board President would clearly disfavor.

“I would feel alarmed as a community member well outside of my Board role if we were at a Contingency Budget,” Eversley Bradwell stated.  Of such a budget, he cautioned, “I understand the long-term impact probably for a generation.” 

Expect the School Board to finalize its budget decision at a special meeting, now scheduled for Monday, June 3rd.