ITHACA, N.Y.—Though only faced with two questioners, the Ithaca City School District Board of Education and administrators last night had a spirited back-and-forth over their annual budget request of just over $145 million, which is set to be voted on May 18 by district residents.
The questions came during a dedicated public budget hearing (viewable in full here) on Tuesday night before the regularly scheduled Board of Education meeting. $145 million is the largest ask the district has made in terms of budget size, though the tax rate is decreasing due to Ithaca’s development. Despite this, as was noted in a common theme of the meeting, the Tompkins County Assessment office determines the actual amount people pay, since their tax bill is determined through their property taxes, based on their property value.
The budget was previously covered at length when it was introduced, and the school district has published its own FAQ on the proposal. The tax levy has gone up, but with the continuing development, the tax rate is still projected to fall. The budget vote will take place on May 18.
Of course, when it comes to taxes, and the fairly complex formula used to determine the final bills, there’s always going to be members of the public concerned that their seemingly ever-increasing contributions to schools through taxes are being wasted. That was the gist of the first commenter’s question, a woman who was in-person at Kulp Auditorium but whose name was inaudible.
“I don’t understand it, you got money from COVID, from the lottery, from a lot of places,” she asked. “It’s irritating, and irresponsible, of the board to continue to feel entitled to getting so much extra money every year. I don’t get any extra money, I’m an old lady on a fixed income.”
Board members and administrators, particularly ICSD CFO Amanda Verba, took turns responding to the query, with some back and forth between those onstage and the woman in the audience. Board member Ann Reichlin also made the point that, if the woman’s house is being assessed at a higher value, whether or not the school district’s budget rose or remained the same, the woman’s property tax bill would be higher.
“Even though there is a lot of federal money that has come through, fortunately, this year, it’s split out over three or four years, you can’t use it all at once,” Reichlin said. “While we’re incredibly grateful for those federal funds, it’s not like they’re enough. It’s a supplement for us to offset some of the extra expenses that occurred as a result of the pandemic.”
Verba emphasized that though the budget request is high, the development in Ithaca acts to mitigate the actual cost to each resident who pays property taxes: with more people paying, each person pays less. To illustrate it, Verba spoke about “more shoulders” to handle the tax burden.
“What you’re talking about is very real,” she said. “When the house is no longer $300,000, and it’s reassessed at $350,000, even if the rate goes down because we did our levy calculation and we spread it across everyone’s shoulders and the rate goes down, if your value of your house goes up, it might mean that you’re paying more on your taxes.”
With that said, the woman commenter responded, why isn’t all the new construction offsetting some of the expenses on people who live locally? In response, Verba explained that it is offsetting some of the expenses, but that the impact isn’t necessarily visible. The impact is more clear when examined in comparison to other local school districts.
“We have $16.59, [Dryden Central School District] is paying $21.52,” Verba said, referring to the projected amount of tax per certain property area. “Ithaca’s rate is low because of the great development here.”
Board members further justified the amount the school district is asking for. Board member Eldred Harris insisted that the district and board have “pressures that aren’t even visible,” mentioning for one that educating children in the shadow of two universities raises the level of expectations and demands of the community.
“We are inclusive, every child in this community is our responsibility, regardless of their needs,” said Board President Rob Ainslie, arguing that the expectations of schools and school districts are vastly higher than they were decades ago. “My mother was school lunch director, there was no breakfast. […] It’s totally a different world. The community expects so much of the school district now, we are the social services provider of this community for children. There are other programs and services that are available, but the first ask is of the district.”
“To answer your question as simply as I can about when will the budget stop going up, I suppose it’s when the cost of everything we provide starts receding,” Harris said, responding the woman’s exasperated questions about when the “spending would stop.” “That’s not something we foresee.”
To conclude, there was a question from Liz Quadrozzi, a teacher in the district, expressing concern about a perceived decrease in spending on mental health services for students, something she has advocated increasing in the past. She said the mental health needs will be more acute in the 2021-2022 academic year than possibly ever before, with students having to adjust on the fly to being back in school (at least, that’s what seems very likely).
“There were no cuts to staffing, in terms of support staff, in terms of assistants and aides,” Verba said, clarifying part of the budget that could have contributed to Quadrozzi’s interpretation of a decrease. “If you see a negative, it is usually due to a retirement, or a re-coding in terms of either moving from an assistant type of support person to an aide.”
Additionally, board members responded to Quadrozzi’s question regarding the possibility of finding room in the budget for more support staff, like guidance counselors as one example.
“It’s beyond guidance, it’s to support students in anyway that we feel would be necessary,” said board member Dr. Sean Eversley Bradwell, who was then echoed by fellow board member Chris Malcolm. “To Liz and to our community, my answer as a board member would be absolutely. We’ve already experienced that this academic year.”