Allissa Kline & Angela Capudean Gratz. Utica Observer-Dispatch. 3/27/2005.


It's a balancing act: The Mohawk Valley's schools strive to promote strong academics while trying not to strain taxpayer pocketbooks.


It's not always easy. Take a look at New Hartford and Whitesboro.


New Hartford's test scores and graduation rates top those of so-called similar schools across the state, as the latest state School Report Cards show. Yet spending has risen 37 percent in the last decade -- significantly more than the 25 percent inflation over that period.


While New Hartford's school taxes have mirrored inflation, growing resident concern over property assessments triggered defeat last year of the school budget -- the only such rejection in Oneida County.


Whitesboro's academics also fared well compared to similar schools, although the high school's performance lags behind its peers across New York. The district has had a good run of budget success at the polls but it, too, has spent 37 percent more from 1994 to 2004. And administrators are working to reduce a possible 8 percent spending increase for next year.


Both districts -- with 6,400 students between them -- point out that they're spending less per student than the state average, making it difficult for them to match the resources of districts elsewhere in New York -- resources needed to ensure students are prepared for competitive colleges and the 21st-century workplace.


And as state aid begins to slip as a proportion of the budget, the local schools may well be relying increasingly on property owners. Rising costs -- like employee health care, teacher pensions and special education -- show no sign of abating.


"If you compare what upstate districts like New Hartford and Whitesboro have to downstate suburban districts, you find differences," said Brandon Gordon, executive director of the Midstate School Finance Consortium, a group working to change state funding formulas.


"People can't do more with less," Gordon said.


Studies show that more money equals a greater array of programs, better teachers and more opportunity, he said.


"The results I have seen show a direct correlation between spending and performance," he said. "Those districts that spend the most did the best on standardized tests, which intrinsically makes sense, but a lot of people will dispute that."


Statewide, typical suburban districts can face circumstances that differ from the challenges confronted by city districts, said David Ernst, New York State School Boards Association spokesman. Residents are more affluent, but fast-rising home values can boost tax bills quickly.


"They do have some challenges that city districts don't have, one of those being a lack of state aid and an overreliance on property tax," Ernst said. "For a district considered wealthier, it's getting far less in state aid."


And while many city properties are decreasing in value, suburban "property bases, if not expanding, seem to be holding steady," Ernst said.


New Hartford


Behind the classroom doors is a vibrant place.


The state's School Report Card for New Hartford shows a district excelling in every subject area targeted by the state-mandated tests -- math, science and English language arts. Passing rates generally fall somewhere in the 90 percent range and several come close to a 100 percent passing rate.


The district thrives beyond state tests. It offers a wealth of Advanced Placement college-level courses for students and in January, its AP European History course was named by the College Board as the strongest in the world for a mid-sized school.


And when students leave New Hartford, they often go on to highly competitive colleges. In 2004, 93 percent of the district's 225 graduates planned to attend college, including Harvard, Cornell and Colgate universities.


Strong academics or not, taxpayers last spring voted down the district's proposed budget. Many were angry about rising property assessments. Like Dale Smith, a mother of three who didn't approve the first budget because her property assessment rose $46,100 in one year.


"I've never voted a budget down until last year," said Smith, whose 14-year-old son attends Ralph Perry Junior High School. "But my assessment increased and so my taxes increased."


Smith -- whose assessment eventually was lowered in small claims court -- voted yes for the district's amended budget, which trimmed $447,000 in spending.


"It's not that I'm against teachers getting paid or anything like that," Smith said. "I just think it has to be responsible budgeting."


Spending in New Hartford increased 37 percent in 10 years, from about $26.5 million to the current $36.5 million but the tax rate has increased only about 22 percent, in line with inflation. The school gets 23 percent of its income from state aid, leaving property taxpayers with two-thirds of the cost, a relatively high percentage. In the 1985-86 school year, the school got 35 percent of its income from state aid.


Also, the district in 2002-03 spent $11,451 per pupil -- about $1,600 less than the state average per student. New Hartford also gets less state aid per pupil compared to the state average -- $4,860 per pupil versus the state average of $6,000.


"That just points to the fact that the (state aid) formula doesn't work for districts like ours," Superintendent Robert Bradley said.


Whitesboro


Whitesboro Teacher's Association President Julie Venezio said so far her district has been able to address spending pressures in a way that hasn't affected her ability to teach.


"We've been very fortunate," said Venezio, who teaches seventh-grade social studies. "Whitesboro has been very generous as far as budgets are concerned."


Judging by the recent string of budget approvals at the polls, after defeats in the mid 1990s, residents are not overly unhappy with their tax burdens. Inside the school's rooms, and beyond test scores, students are active in sports, music and art, which school leaders say reflects well on the district's academics.


Whitesboro parent Stephanie Sacco said the majority of costs driving the budget are out of the schools' hands. She doesn't fault the district for having to raise taxes year after year.


Sacco, a remedial reading teacher for BOCES, grew up in Deerfield and graduated from Whitesboro High School. In September 2006, she will be sending her own child, Philip, 3, to Deerfield Elementary, one of four elementary schools in the Whitesboro district.


"The majority of the increases in the budget are really things the school district has no control over," Sacco said. "I can't complain about our school taxes. The last few years the hit has been minimal."


And you get what you pay for, she said.


Whitesboro's 10-year spending increase was about 37 percent up to the current year, though the tax increase was about 10 percent during that time for a typical homeowner.


Whitesboro relies on state aid for about 44 percent of its income, and also fears that will shrink. In 2002-03 Whitesboro's spending per pupil was $9,778 among the area's lowest and well below the $13,085 state average.


Transportation and fuel costs are especially significant in districts like Whitesboro, where the student population is spread over Whitestown, Deerfield, Marcy, Schuyler and Whitesboro, which equals more than 900,000 miles per year. Fuel costs are up more than 50 percent, according to the proposed operations and maintenance budget.


Costs for those who qualify for special education are increasing, including specialized schools. Medical insurance costs also could rise more than $750,000.


Where's it headed


In May, taxpayers from both districts will go to the polls to pass judgment on their proposed spending.


In New Hartford, the proposed 2005-06 budget -- with a 3.4 spending increase -- carries a tax hike less than 1 percent, even as spending rises for employee benefits. Whitesboro hasn't yet unveiled a projected tax rate.


In New Hartford, some citizens are getting involved. The Citizens' Budget Advisory Committee concluded Wednesday that the district is wisely spending taxpayers' dollars.


"Our overall finding is that the taxpayers of New Hartford are receiving a good value for their tax dollars," co-chair Frank Basile said.


Among the recommendations of the 10-person committee, are that the school board review prescription drug plans and develop a constant line of communication with taxpayers.


A possible solution to what the Midstate School Finance Consortium calls a broken state aid system is to create a starting point of an equal amount on every student in every school district in New York. That would be about $9,000 for each student, the consortium's Gordon said. Then more aid would be given to some districts based on student need.


Creativity will be needed, New Hartford school board member Kevin Copeland said. The district tries to project needs in a three-year cycle and participates in a consortium with other districts to buy items like fuel and supplies.


"The community expects the best value for the buck," Copeland said. "We keep trying to build a better mousetrap for our dollars."