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Regent Dawson dinner fails to bring good news

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MASSENA - When Board of Education President John Boyce and Kevin Perretta left last week’s dinner with Regent James C. Dawson, they did not have good news to report back to their fellow board members.

The annual dinner, which brings Regent Dawson to St. Lawrence County to meet with the region’s educators, typically serves as a preview of school officials can expect out of the governor’s soon to be released budget proposal.

“Unfortunately it was pretty thin on good news,” Mr. Boyce said.

According to information he obtained at the dinner, Mr. Boyce said 50 percent of the state’s school districts are reporting they’ll be educationally insolvent in two years, with 50 percent also reporting they’ll be financially insolvent in that same period of time.

“We should be ahead of the curve and not completely insolvent in two years, but nothing is guaranteed,” Mr. Boyce said.

School officials said last month they projected a $5.4 million shortfall in their 2013-14 spending plan as their Finance Committee continues to meet and discuss next year’s budget.

Finance Committee Chairman Michael J. LeBire said last month they were hoping to potentially cut the deficit in half.

All cost-saving measures will be examined as district officials to continue to craft their 2013-14 budget, Mr. LeBire had said in October. He had told board members that if state aid remained at a projected 2 percent annual increase and if the district maintained its current programs, local property taxes would need to increase 101 percent over the next five years to bridge the budget gaps.

The only way to get around that, he had said, was to cut academic and extracurricular programs or seek a super majority to approve a tax increase above the district’s tax levy limit - neither option being acceptable, according to the Finance Committee chairman.

Mr. LeBire said that their October projections showed, if current levels were maintained, the district’s reserve fund would run out before the 2015-16 school year and taxes could rise dramatically for district residents.

If district officials kept everything “static,” they would use $5.4 million of their reserve funds in 2013-14 with 2 percent tax increase and $5.6 million in 2014-15 with a 12 percent tax increase. That would exhaust the reserve fund, requiring a 48 percent tax increase in 2015-16.

That would be followed by 9 percent tax increases in 2016-17 and 2017-18.

At the dinner, Regent Dawson reported that this year’s budget may contain $650 million in new money for the state’s schools, something which on its surface would appear to be good news.

Mr. Boyce said, however, after reimbursements that pot of money then shrinks down to roughly $450 million.

“He said he wouldn’t be surprised if we didn’t get any of it,” Mr. Boyce said, referring to Mr. Dawson’s take on that money, which the Regent added may ultimately disappear as a result of the state’s Hurricane Sandy relief efforts.

“The way the governor controls the money what he wants to give us is likely what we’ll get,” Mr. Boyce said.

Mr. Perretta said his take on the meeting was simple - don’t expect a state aid increase.

“Conservatively we can expect nothing more than we got last year,” he said. “If we get anything else, the more the better.”

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