School Budget Crises Averted

Ithaca, Newfield approve revised budgets; ICSD bus prop. passes too

by Robert Lynch; June 19, 2024

Some might say “What a difference a month makes.”  Others might put that differently: “What a difference a tax cut makes.”

A sign of shifting political winds. The budget passed.

In revote referendums Tuesday, voters in both the Ithaca and Newfield School Districts reversed earlier defeats of their respective next year’s budgets and approved both.  In Ithaca, the lopsided margin of victory registered even stronger than the landslide defeat given a higher-priced, higher taxing budget back on May 21st.  In Newfield, a budget that had lost by 18 votes in May, won by more than 100 votes after educators trimmed it down by some $71,000.

Ithaca’s school voters also endorsed spending $1.6 Million from a reserve fund to purchase four school buses plus a few other vehicles.  Two of those buses would be electric.  In Newfield, the school board chose not to resubmit a once-defeated transportation proposition, one that might have included an electric bus.

As for the budget vote, the Ithaca City School District’s (ICSD’s) retooled proposition passed Tuesday 4,979 votes (74.1%) in favor to 1,736 (25.9%) opposed.  The Ithaca outcome marked a stunning reversal from the seven-to-three margin of drubbing voters had given the first-submitted budget in May.

The ICSD bus proposition passed Tuesday, 4,593 votes (68.6%) in favor, to 2,104 votes (31.4%) opposed.  The bus purchase option was exactly half as costly as the $3.2 Million proposition advanced a month earlier.  The first measure would have bought eight buses, not just four. In each instance, half the purchased buses would be electric.

In the Newfield District, figures released Tuesday night showed its revised budget passing 387 votes (59.7%) to 261 (40.3%).

Boards of Education in each district will meet Thursday night to certify their school systems’ respective results. Each meeting is expected to be short and perfunctory.  Had budgets failed, the boards might have agonized—potentially for hours—over how to cut spending in line with the “Contingency Budgets” that state law would have mandated each adopt.

A Contingency Budget is, effectively, an austerity budget by a different name. Whenever school budgets fail in a second referendum, state law mandates the Boards of Education cabin spending so that the forthcoming year’s tax levy does not surpass the one for the current budget year.

Unease, as the compromise was being hammered-out. Ithaca School Board members Erin Croyle and Jill Tripp, May 28th.

In Ithaca, administrators had warned that a Contingency Budget would have forced $9 Million in spending cuts compared to the budget first placed before voters in May.  By comparison, the so-called “Re-vote Budget,” adopted Tuesday in Ithaca, will prompt cuts of only $5.9 Million.

True, teaching and administrative positions will be lost in the trimmed-down budget adopted by Ithaca voters Tuesday.  But most cuts, administrators have predicted, will come through attrition.  Had a Contingency Budget been mandated, personnel rosters would have been cut much deeper with layoffs possible.

The Newfield budget just-approved, accomplished much of its economies through the elimination of a single, now-vacant instructional position, a “technology” (shop) teacher serving the upper grades.  Newfield administrators had eyed other teaching vacancies for elimination, both at the elementary/middle school levels as well as in music education, had contingency budgeting become necessary.

What likely enabled passage of the ICSD budget was the tax levy.  It plummeted from that of the budget that was rejected in May. 

The May budget had calculated a year-to-year tax levy increase of 8.4 per cent.  The “Re-vote Budget” voters ratified Tuesday would have raised the levy by only 2.92 per cent, an increase slightly below the (arguably arbitrary) “tax cap” that Albany accountants set.  Since the revised budget stands tax cap-compliant, its passage by the electorate required only a simple majority, not the super-majority necessary when districts ask voters to override a tax cap.

The adopted budget in Newfield will increase the tax levy next year by 2.5 per cent.  The earlier-rejected budget would have hiked that levy by 3.5 per cent.

The tax levy, as opposed to the tax rate, is viewed as the better gauge of a budget’s taxpayer impact.  With property assessments rising, a tax rate can remain stable—or even fall—while actual tax bills rapidly rise. 

With Tompkins County residential assessments climbing markedly this year, watchful homeowners warned that raising the tax levy too much could price them out of the community.

The adopted Ithaca Schools’ budget totals just over $163 Million dollars.  The plan rejected in May had totaled $168.9 Million.  A budget draft first advanced by administrators over the winter and early-spring would have climbed spending to as high as $170.9 Million and hiked the tax levy by 12.14 per cent.

Still undecided—and left undiscussed in these latest deliberations—is the fate of a $125 Million, decade-long Ithaca School District capital investment initiative that was also rejected at the polls in May.  By law, according to administrators, the capital spending cannot be submitted for a revote until 90 days after its defeat.  Tuesday’s stunning budget turn-around could prompt the Ithaca Board of Education to resubmit the capital plan for voter reconsideration later this summer or fall.  Board members could trim the plan and its total before they do.

“Contingency would be catastrophic,” Ithaca School Board member Erin Croyle told a Board committee meeting one day after voters had rejected the May budget.  Croyle was never truly happy with the compromise, cut-down, revised version eventually resubmitted voters.  But she saw it far better than the state-mandated contingency alternative.

No doubt, a sigh of relief. Newfield School Superintendent Eric Hartz

There’d be “nothing after-school except sports,” should the contingency alternative have come to pass, Croyle warned at a later meeting.  It’s a “terrifying process,” she said at the time.

Newfield budget crunchers had said at their own budget meeting that the district’s entire sports program might need to be eliminated should its district resort to contingency.  Alternatively, perhaps, there might have been no instrumental band.

Taxpayer-conscious Ithaca School Board member Jill Tripp can be credited with pulling various factions together to support the ICSD $163 Million compromise that secured voter approval this week.  She also backed the half-as-large proposition to buy the electric buses.

“It’s not a perfect budget,” Tripp acknowledged at the Board’s June 3rd session.  “It doesn’t have everything I want,” she stated.  But, “we’re heading in the right direction “ 

Each district’s Board of Education could have imposed a Contingency Budget by its own initiative, thereby bypassing a second referendum.  But neither board chose to do so.  No doubt, based on Tuesday’s results, most of their respective members are glad they’d remained optimistic.