This post was written by Keri Blakinger, who writes a blog about prison reform.

Ithaca, N.Y. —  A contested $113.7 million budget was approved by Ithaca City School District voters in May.

That budget, supported by the school, was the source of contention because it contained major tax increases for local residents.

In 8 questions and 8 answers, here’s everything you need to know about the contested Ithaca City Schools District budget in 2014. Click on the question to find your answer.

1 – What’s all the fuss about school budgets this year?
2 – What does the budget mean for the school’s students and teachers?
3 – What does the budget mean for taxpayers?
4 – What were the other options?
5 – Can you explain that thing I was hearing about a ‘supermajority’ vote?
6 – What caused the budget crisis?
7 – Are we just going to have the same problem next year?
8 – This is a lot of text. Can I just watch a video?

(Did we miss your question? If so, email me at jstein@ithacavoice.com.)

1 – What’s all this fuss about school budgets this year?

State funding for the Ithaca City School District fell by more than $3 million for this year because of a 2010 law called the Gap Elimination Act, contributing to a major hole in the school’s budget, according to a letter form schools Superintendent Luvelle Brown.

Administrators responded with three possible budgets, each of which involved a tradeoff of more cuts (and significant layoffs of teachers) versus higher increases to the district’s tax levy.

After significant public debate, voters in May approved a $113.7 million budget endorsed by the school’s superintendent. That plan staved off the potential for more draconian cuts to the school but came at a high cost to taxpayers – an 8.87 percent tax levy increase and a 5.67 percent tax rate increase, according to The Ithaca Times. Still, even with the approval of the largest tax increase on the table, the teaching budget will fall by 8 percent.

“It was a hard-won victory for the district, which faced opposition from residents who did not want their property taxes to increase,” The Ithaca Journal reported.

Back to the questions

2 – What does this budget mean for the school’s students and teachers?

According to several reports, the school will reduce:

– administrative spending by 19 percent

– teachers by 8 percent

– paraprofessionals and other staff by 9 percent

– other operating costs by $1.9 million

– Four pre-K classrooms were slated to be cut

– The average elementary classroom size will increase from 18.5 students to 19.2.

These cuts were the least severe of the three options proposed by administrators.

Back to the questions

3 – What does this budget mean for taxpayers?

The $113 million budget will entail an 8.87 percent tax levy increase and a 5.67 percent tax rate increase. For homeowners with property valued at $100,000, that means an additional $68.32 in taxes every year; for those with property valued at $200,000, this means $165.70 more in taxes; and for a $300,000 home this means $263.17 more in taxes.

Back to the questions

4 – What were the other options?

1) The $111 million budget

This budget required a 22 percent reduction in administrative spending and a 12 percent reduction in the teaching budget. That would mean the elimination of around 70 full-time equivalent teaching positions. Seven pre-K classrooms would be eliminated and the average elementary class size would again increase from 18.5 students to 19.2. Also, the average middle school class size would increase from 20 students to 23.

2) The $108 million budget

This budget required a 47 percent reduction in administrative spending and a 17 percent reduction in the teaching budget. That would mean the elimination of about 100 full-time equivalent teaching positions. Seven pre-K classrooms would be eliminated and average elementary classroom size would increase from 18.5 to 20.4 students. The average middle school class size would increase from 20 to 25 students and the instrumental music program would be significantly affected.

If no cuts were made, the budget would have been $119 million after the addition of uncontrollable cost increases.

Back to the questions

5 – What’s that I was hearing about a ‘supermajority’ vote?

The two largest budget options – at $113 million and $111 million – exceeded the property tax levy limit, and thus required supermajority approval. This meant that at least 60 percent of the voters had to approve of the budget for it to pass – which it did, with 62 percent of the vote.

The smallest budget, the $108 million proposal, was right at the tax levy limit and thus would only have required simply majority approval.

Back to the questions

6 – What caused this budget crisis?

One of the major factors was the GEA, or Gap Elimination Act. In an effort to close the state budget gap, former Governor David Patterson enacted the GEA in 2010, which decreased the amount of state aid each school district would receive. Ostensibly, the GEA was a temporary measure, but it is still in effect.

GEA took almost $18 million out of ICSD’s budget since it was implemented in 2010, according to a letter by Superintendent Brown.

“Over the past four budget cycles and particularly since the implementation of the GEA, the ICSD has aggressively used fund reserves and temporary federal stimulus money to plug holes,” Brown wrote. “Unfortunately, these measures are never sustainable.”

Additionally, Brown cited locked increases in the budget, including to salary and healthcare for school officials.

Also problematic, according to Brown, is the state’s imposition of a tax levy limit as part of its property tax freeze. This meant that the district could not effectively make up for the state aid decreases by increasing its own revenues without going through the difficult process of obtaining supermajority approval and losing eligibility for its taxpayers to receive state rebates.

In previous years, the Ithaca City School District had tapped into its reserves to deal with these factors. However, by the time that the 2014-2015 budget discussion rolled around, relying only on reserves to fill the budget gap was no longer a reasonable option.

Back to the questions

7 – Are we just going to have this same problem next year?

Quite possibly. Unless the Gap Elimination Adjustment is eliminated or unless state aid increases, the district will still be feeling a significant financial crunch.

Back to the questions

8 – Can I just watch a video?

You sure can. Here’s Superintendent Brown in March:

=

Back to the questions

Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.