By Jann Wiswall

The Ellicottville Central School District’s Board of Education and staff have been working diligently over the past many weeks to prepare a 2014-15 expense budget that accommodates the instructional needs of students and teachers, maintains the facility, pays for state-mandated contributions to the Teacher Retirement System and other programs, and covers the start of the capital improvement project.

In the process, they have looked at every line item in every department and plan to have a budget for public review by April 1.

Since the task is still underway, details about specific cuts and increases are unofficial, but there are some known figures that form the basis for budget assumptions.

First, the board is trying to get the budget to no more than $11,070,000, which represents a 1.3 percent increase (approximately $128,000) over the current fiscal year’s budget. Much of that increase is the $240,000 needed to pay a portion of the bills for the capital improvement project that was approved by district voters last year.

Second, the board does not want to go into the reserve fund next year to pay for operations.

In order to reduce the impact of the capital project costs, along with state-mandated payments into the Teacher Retirement System and increases in the cost of doing business, the board and staff have already found ways to cut more than $100,000 in expenses and are still working on fine-tuning the budget to look for further reductions that will not negatively impact the quality of student education while ensuring that facilities and programs are adequately maintained.

The biggest question mark in the budget process this year is how to estimate revenues.

Over the past four years, New York State has been withholding promised aid to schools due to the Gap Elimination Adjustment — a law introduced in 2010-2011 fiscal year as a way to close New York’s $10 billion budget deficit. Under that legislation, the state has withheld nearly $8.5 billion in promised school funding so far.

In Ellicottville alone, the GEA resulted in $1.6 million less state aid over four years than what it was originally projected to receive. As a result, Ellicottville (and all other New York public schools) has had to draw down on its reserve funds, cut staff and programs, and increase taxes in order to survive.

However, the state now has a surplus of $2 billion, so school leaders and others are urging the legislature to repeal the GEA and return to previous aid levels. A bill currently making its way through the legislature proposes to phase out the GEA over three years (for more information, see GEA cover story).

Until the state budget is announced later this month, schools must assume no changes to the GEA, meaning they will assume another reduction in state aid. In Ellicottville’s case, that’s another $186,000 reduction in state aid for the coming year. Given the costs of the capital project, inflation and mandated expenses, school district taxpayers will be asked to support a tax increase in order to keep the schools operating. As of the budget work session on March 11, the board is predicting an increase of 5.5–6 percent in school taxes.

The next meeting of the Ellicottville school board will be held Tuesday, March 18 at 7:30 p.m. in the high school library.