'Daunting’ School Budget

    Monday night’s Springs School budget workshop was dominated by the word “daunting,” as the board reviewed the potential gap between revenue and expenses in the proposed 2012-13 budget and discussed how the school might work within new constraints.
    Like municipalities throughout the state, the Springs board is coping with a mandated 2-percent maximum increase in next year’s tax levy. The estimated budget proposed by the school board on Monday allowed for a slight increase in mandated expenses, such as contracted “steps” in teachers’ salaries, and it shows a gap of $1.09 million. The gap would increase to over $1.5 million if the budget were defeated twice and the district had to adopt a contingency, or austerity, budget.
    “We have less than a month to calculate this, and still no advice from the state,” Colleen Card, the district treasurer, said. The tax levy calculations are to be sent to the state by March 1. “Whatever we send in March, we’re tied to. If there’s a mistake in the calculations, too bad. If we collect too little, too bad.”
    “The key is to get the information out there,” Tim Frazier, a member of the school board, said. “Taxpayers need to see how the playing field has changed and what it means for them.”
    “I think most people think it means that when they get their tax bill, it won’t go up more than 2 percent, but that’s not what it means,” said Kathee Burke Gonzales, the school board president. She called the new law “misleading” and “a middle-of-the-night deal.”
    The 2-percent cap has been imposed on the amount of money that has to be raised by taxes in all municipalities. That is not to be confused with the total budget or the tax rate, which is based on the value of taxable property. Given a particular budget, tax rates go down if property assessments increase, and vice versa.
    “Unless you come to a meeting like this, how can someone understand? It’s up to us to educate the community,” Ms. Gonzales said.
    The next meeting will be a community forum, on Feb. 11 at 9 a.m., and board members stressed the importance of attendance “given the many difficult choices ahead of us this budget season,” according to a statement on the school’s Web site. The forum will focus on instructional programs, special education, extracurricular activities, sports, and field trips.
    Parents, students, staff members, and district residents will break into small groups to discuss to what items might be priorities and which are not.
    “Closing this budget gap is daunting,” Ms. Gonzales said. “We as a community need to identify which programs and services the community is most concerned about losing, and which items we might be willing to ‘re-think’ or sacrifice.”
The board expects a large turnout when the budget vote takes place in May. Last year, 998 voters went to the polls, compared to 459 the year before.
    “Our job as board members,” Ms. Gonzales said, “will be to listen carefully and craft a thoughtful budget that will be in the best interest of the entire Springs community.”