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Districts begin budget approach

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School boards won't approve 2011-12 budgets until April, but many educators are worried about what the new year will bring financially and already are hard at work on their budget.

There was uncertainty going into the 2010 budget season, and many north country school districts made deep cuts and raised taxes. But the coming budget season could be filled with more questions than usual, as Andrew M. Cuomo takes over as governor and begins to deal with a state budget deficit.

"We're looking ahead carefully at all of the challenges and differences we see at the state level," said Kenneth J. McAuliffe, superintendent of Lowville Academy and Central School.

"There's the potential for a tax cap and long-term health care planning, and this is year two of a state-aid reduction. Can we stabilize taxes? Do we need to make cuts? Those are the things we are carefully looking at now," Mr. McAuliffe said.

Mr. Cuomo proposed a 2 percent tax-increase cap on school districts and municipalities during his campaign for governor. Costs that district officials can't control are rising, including health insurance, utilities and state-mandated teacher and employee retirement services. Mr. Cuomo might propose to slash state aid to schools to help offset the state's major budget deficit.

These factors, and the memory of raising taxes and cutting staff members during the last budget season, have many local educators fearing the unknown.

"There is no midyear cut so far in our current state aid, so that's good news," Watertown City School District Superintendent Terry N. Fralick said. "We will hear after the first of the year from Gov.-elect Cuomo and see how he addresses the budget deficit he's facing."

Mr. Fralick has had preliminary discussions with business officials and assistant superintendents about how increases in retirement costs and health insurance rates will affect the 2011-12 budget.

The district didn't use the roughly $700,000 it received last year from the federal education jobs bill, so it will use it to fund 11 employee positions next school year. That money will help the district a great deal, Mr. Fralick said. Those positions previously were funded using federal stimulus funding, which expires after this school year.

Not all north country school districts will have the jobs bill money to fall back on, because some used it last year to bring back jobs that had been cut.

The Carthage Central School District has begun its budget season by forming a budget committee made up of district employees and residents. The committee has held an introductory meeting and will continue to meet over the next few months to work through the budget process.

At Indian River Central School District, Business Manager James R. Koch began presentations at school board meetings in November on different aspects of the budget, including transportation and personnel.

Beginning this month, districts have a structured schedule for the budget process with meetings and deadlines. In early April, school boards will adopt budgets, and the public will vote on them in May.

But for now, school officials are considering all of the possibilities.

"I think it's prudent to look at what could happen," Mr. McAuliffe said. "We're looking at all of this with a very concerned eye."

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