Correction: This story has been updated to more accurately reflect the impact that school district residents will feel on their property taxes.

ITHACA, N.Y.—Ithaca City School District budget season comes but once a year, and with the air beginning to warm, it feels like that time again. Tax talk time.

The initial budget request was officially presented by Dr. Luvelle Brown, the district’s superintendent, with sizable contributions from Deputy Superintendent Lily Talcott, ICSD COO Amanda Verba and ICSD Inclusion Officer Mary Grover throughout it as well. This year’s proposed budget, which is subject to a referendum on May 17, 2022 in which voters have the chance to either approve or reject the figure, is $148,944,098, representing a 2.59 percent increase from the year before.

That proposal shows the district’s still rising budgetary requests, which were approved at $145.1 million for the 2021-2022 school year and $136.8 million for the 2020-2021 school year. The tax levy is projected to increase significantly, to the tune of 7.2 percent and even surpassing the tax cap, though the tax rate will remain flat. Regardless, the increased levy will mean higher property tax bills for those who live within the school district.

You can watch the full hour-long budget explanation here.

‘Tis the season, so a quick reminder: the tax levy is the total amount of money that the district deems it necessary to raise through taxes, though that does not represent the entire budget figure; the tax rate is the corresponding rate by which properties must be taxed to reach that amount of money.

“Once we take the levy and you actually put that into a formula and divide it across the total assessed value of the entire tax base of Ithaca City School District, that calculates a rate,” explained Verba. “That rate is the amount of money per $1,000 that your property is assessed at, that you would pay.”

Verba further explained that the tax rate on properties in ICSD would be $16.84 per $1,000 of assessed property value, which is the same rate as it was last year. While that’s a positive for the district, because they don’t have to ask for a higher rate, the levy is still increasing by more than normal. (Correction: A previous version of this story wrongly stated that an increase in taxes would be necessarily linked to higher property assessments as opposed to the school district asking for more money)

However, the tax levy will rise, and significantly. While the number has risen steadily for several years, that has largely floated around a 2-3 percent increase. It’s estimated the 2022-2023 tax levy increase will be about 7.21 percent (though that total is dependent on property tax assessments, work that is finished in the late summer). Because it will rise past the limit for levy rises, known as the tax cap (a two percent increase), the school district’s budget will need to be approved by at least 60 percent of voters in May, while normally it would only require 51 percent.

Last year, 71.1 percent of voters approved the budget.

Brown referenced the last time the levy increased that much, which was for the 2014-2015 school year, when it increased over 8.5 percent and accompanied a 5.2 percent tax rate increase. This year’s levy rise has no accompanying tax rate increase.

“They levy that we anticipate is [an increase of] 7.21 percent, but what we must stress is that our tax rate [increase] will be 0,” Brown said.

The primary expenditures that Brown and Verba mentioned are for new school buses and construction work at the Northeast Elementary School. That money will be taken out of the district’s capital reserve fund, but the taxes will be partially used to replenish that capital reserve fund, Brown said, which is only funded as long as the district ends the year without running a deficit—Verba called it a “savings account” of sorts.

“We are going to be increasing the amount of money in that capital reserve, mainly because we know that costs are going up, especially around exploration around if we want to do electric buses in the future, we want to make sure we have the funds available to do that,” Verba said.

The three main planks, used in the opening of Brown’s budget presentation, are “Engage, Educate, Empower.”

“It’s different to educate a young person in 2022-2023 than it was in 1996-1997,” Brown said. “How we fund that is different too.”

Earlier, Brown walked the Board of Education through his proposal. It began with his insistence that students should be viewed as “partners and leaders,” in this budget, which he feels the district can truthfully say for the first time.

Brown spoke about technological enhancements that are taking place, as well as highlighting the fact that certain facilities in the district require repairs or rehabilitation. He mentioned mental health professionals hired by the district to help both students and staff, a COVID-19 pandemic-era action that Brown hopes will continue at least as the coronavirus continues to impact life.

Talcott and Brown also added that there would be more anti-racist professional development for staff members, literacy initiatives and arts integration (which will include more visual arts and music teachers, trying to embrace different intellects, Talcott said). Grover also highlighted “Educator Identity Work,” another aspect of the budget, and said they will be working with the Equity Consulting Group and the Center for Culturally Responsible Teaching and Learning to refine that curriculum.

The exact nature of educator identity work was fairly vague, though Grover did mention the following about the micro-credential program that represents a sizable part of the identity work.

“The micro-credential [program] speaks to helping educators understand, and know, who they are, their identity and how that impacts the learning in the classroom community that they facilitate,” Grover said. The district is trying to offer the program to each staff member in the first two years of their employment in the district.

Later, Verba offered a fairly passionate defense of the budget, saying that it was necessary because of a combination of factors that are primed to simultaneously impact the district, including the gradual ending of federal funding that came through COVID-19 relief bills.

“We didn’t require ourselves to go over the tax cap in years prior,” Verba said, noting that the higher levy this year would theoretically help the district avoid pitfalls in the near future. “We got state aid, we didn’t have a pandemic, we didn’t have federal aid falling off the books, we didn’t have emerging needs of young people and staff that we must address quickly, and they cost money and they’re of value. This year, there is a uniqueness to this.”

BoE Chair Rob Ainslie asked about how much of the district’s “Learning Forward” plan, meant to be a more modern curriculum with a partial emphasis on anti-racist education and teacher/student empowerment, was baked into the budget, particularly with federal funding ending in the next few years as COVID-19 pandemic dollars gradually dry.

“That’s why we are proposing that we keep the tax rate the same, but raise the tax levy,” Brown said. “Those additional funds that will come in from us having the 7.2 percent increase will make these programs sustainable.”

Brown said the “funding cliff” that is forthcoming would otherwise cause the district to have to cut about $4 million worth of programming that it should theoretically be able to keep with the higher tax levy.

“One of my colleagues is talking about their federal funds, when they go away, so do the programs, so do the innovations,” Brown said. “Then we’re back to where we were just before the pandemic where we were looking at cutting significantly anyway just to keep up with inflation.”

Fellow board member Moira Lang (joined later by board member Erin Croyle) then asked what the implications or repercussions are of going over the tax cap, as the tax levy does exceed that, and there have been punishments during the Cuomo-era for bypassing it. Brown said that the sanctions that would have been enacted in previous years for surpassing the tax cap are not in play this year.

But he said that in the event the budget does not receive the requisite 60 percent of voter support, there could be some fairly intense ramifications—including pulling money from the district’s fund balance to bridge the gap for a year and avoid cutting certain programming immediately, a notion that clearly troubled Brown.

“The negative implications for not getting 60 percent are going very deeply into fund balance or significant cuts for next year,” Brown said. “We would be recommending the significant shift from fund balance, which would result in us doing some other stuff next year.”

Echoing Brown’s sentiments that this year is a “key opportunity,” board member Eldred Harris said he believes Learning Forward is working, and that he has rarely seen enthusiasm from kids in schools that he sees now.

“[I] plea with our community, please support this budget. This is a good thing we are doing for our community, our families, and our little people,” Harris said.

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Education & Public Health Reporter at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com