ITHACA, N.Y.—The Ithaca City School District voted unanimously Tuesday to approve the district’s proposed $148.9 million budget for the 2022-2023 school year.

The budget includes a 7.2 percent tax levy increase from last year’s levy, zooming past the state’s tax cap of 2 percent, meaning that it will require a 60 percent majority of public support at the annual budget referendum on May 17, when Board of Education elections are also held. The Ithaca Voice will be conducting a deeper dive on the budget line items before the public hearing on May 10.

ICSD Superintendent Luvelle Brown led a brief explanation of the budget, choosing to focus on the literacy programs he hopes to emphasize in the new budget.

“I think we’re on the right track with our literacy instruction,” Brown said. “Literacy in schools is a civil rights issue of our time. We need to get all our young people reading at acceptable levels. The professional development that’s embedded in this budget is going to be great for us.”

The details for specific expenses were still pretty vague, but Brown continued that the district would be bringing in more “culturally responsible materials” into classrooms and libraries, plus do more case study work in schools.

The explanation was ostensibly enough for Board chair Rob Ainslie, who said that he thought the new budget initiatives were a good step for the district as it emerges from the daily survival mode strategies of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Grabbing on and having literacy be the focus of Learning Forward, with culturally responsive teaching and all that I see here, but a literacy initiative is integral to all that in my mind,” Ainslie said. “It’s important that folks know what we’re trying to do. […] We talk about numbers all the time, we’re increasing the budget by 2.5%. That really has no meaning unless you say what that $140-some million dollars actually does.”

Amanda Verba, the district’s Chief Financial Officer, emphasized (again, after doing so last week as well) that at least part of the rise in desired budget money is from sustaining programs that were started with federal financial assistance through COVID-19 relief money. That includes the aforementioned literacy programs, as well as mental health services.

“Literacy, mental health services, those are things that COVID really pushed to the forefront—we always knew they were important, but it really reprioritized them faster,” Verba said. That’s been often touted as a primary concern for the district: that the federal money will gradually decline soon, and that they will need to supplement that money if those programs are to continue. “We need to have a sustainability plan in place for them. This is the start, looking to be able to generate that revenue to be able to support these programs in the future. We must do that now, we do not want to reach year three, when those monies are gone and we do have programs that we must sustain.”

As was announced during the meeting, the district will receive a bit of a boon on that front, thanks to a grant applied for and received thanks to ICSD Inclusion Officer Mary Grover. She said the district will receive $400,000 each year for the next five years that will go towards literacy programs in the district.

After further brief discussion, including comments of support for the budget from Board members Eldred Harris and Dr. Patricia Wasiyliw, it was passed unanimously, though members Kelly Evans, Christopher Malcolm and Nicole LaFave were ostensibly not present for the vote.

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Managing Editor at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com