When the Lakeland Central School District put more than half of its projected spending up for review the other evening, a half-dozen residents at best turned out to listen. Anyone who avoided that night’s damp chill missed little when it came to concrete numbers.
As Raymond Morningstar, the district’s assistant superintendent for business, noted, Lakeland’s proposed $157 million budget for 2012-13 remains very much “a work in progress.”
In an hour-long session at the administration building, Morningstar led the school board in a line-by-line review last Thursday of more than $80 million in planned spending. The meeting was the third in a series that will culminate in the board’s adopting a budget next month, the precursor to a May 15 vote by district residents.
But numbers can change. The district is committed to presenting a budget that stays within the state’s new 2 percent limit on tax-levy increases, Schools Superintendent George Stone declared when he unveiled the proposed budget in January.
At that time, Stone said the new budget would be frozen at the spending level of the current one. Still, it was estimated, the district would have to identify a combination of spending cuts and revenue increases totaling $1.85 million just to keep pace with this school year’s outlays. On the revenue side, Gov. Andrew Cuomo recommended increasing aid to the district by about $800,000 over last year. Even with that bump, however, Lakeland remains more than $1 million short of closing its fiscal gap.
The budget segments examined Thursday—instruction, including special education, and BOCES services—were unable to provide any economies. On the contrary, the $81,235,906 in proposed spending represents a 1.09 percent increase over the current year’s $80,358,205.
Even seeming savings proved illusory and demonstrated the danger in reading too much into raw, preliminary numbers alone. The salaries of special education teachers were projected to drop by almost three-quarters of a million dollars, year over year, going from $9,378,336 in the current budget to $8,635,242 in Stone’s projected spending. But that drop, business superintendent Morningstar pointed out, reflects not a reduction in the number of special ed teachers but simply a better way to account for the salaries of some teacher aides.
Sure enough, five budget lines later, teacher-aide salaries seem to mushroom by more than 25 percent. The underlying reason, however, is not a sudden increase in the number of aides or their compensation but the reappearance of the aides’ pay, and on a line with a markedly smaller current outlay. Just as removing the aides’ paychecks from the teachers’ accounting line produced only a modest reduction, their subsequent appearance on a once-smaller special-ed line generates the whopping 25.92 percent increase. Inside the numbers, however, no material change has taken place in the overall special-ed structure.
By next month, district officials say, the numbers and reality must align, with the school board scheduled to adopt a budget on April 12 and hear public reaction to it on May 1. Two weeks later, in voting at the Van Cortlandtville Elementary School on May 15, residents will have the last word.