The Utica City School District is facing a tale of two budgets.
In one scenario, Uticans face a 2.5 percent property-tax increase in the budget proposed by Superintendent Dan Lowengard for the 2005-06 school year. In another scenario, the district would have to cut 150 jobs to balance its budget.
It all depends on whether the district receives an additional $6.5 million in state aid the district says it is owed under the current school-aid formula.
As outlined by Lowengard, the proposed $99.1 million budget includes an 11.3 percent increase in spending. It calls for additional staff, including two special-education teachers, seven custodians, a nurse, a librarian and an art teacher. It also calls for restoring other positions that had been cut in recent years, including a psychologist, seven elementary teachers and seven assistant principals.
But the real story for Lowengard is that with a steadily increasing enrollment, he says the district should be receiving more aid from the state. As it stands, Gov. George Pataki's proposed state budget calls for a $368,000 reduction in state aid -- from $59,522,289 to $59,154,133. The city is among 25 school districts around the state suing for increased school funding, on the heels of a state Supreme Court decision ordering the state to increase funding for New York City schools.
Lowengard said he realized the proposed 2.5 percent property tax increase would not generate the funds needed to close the district's budget gap if that state aid figure holds true. But after a 15 percent increase in taxes two years ago and a 5 percent increase last year, he said taxpayers had done their fair share.
"We're not like other communities than can raise additional funds for our schools," he said. "Our taxpayers have done their fair share and supported our budgets, but now it's time for the governor and Legislature to do what's fair for the children of Utica.
Board member D. Victor Pellegrino agreed the district is being shortchanged but didn't agree with Lowengard's plan to ask for a 2.5 percent tax increase.
"It's a very unclear budget and doesn't tell taxpayers what they need to know," he said. "There's $10 million worth of additional expenditures, there's $6.5 million of air, revenue we don't know we're going to get from the state, yet he calls for only a 2.5 percent (tax) increase. The public should be told we're going to have to make $6.5 million in cuts and what those cuts should be."
Lowengard did list possible reductions amounting to $6,874,400 that can be made if the $6.5 million in aid isn't received from the state. The list of prioritized cuts that accompanied the budget included a $1 million reduction in health insurance costs, cutting all the positions restored and added in his proposal, eliminating all sports programs and arts education and cutting up to 150 professional and support staff positions.
Lowengard said he hopes those cuts don't have to be made because the state isn't living up to its obligation.
"Why should our kids be deprived?" Lowengard asked. "There's no rhyme or reason for our kids to be hurt like that."