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Fulton Board of Ed Approves Budget; Tax Levy Increase is Below Cap Limit

Months of work and worry ended quickly and quietly for the Fulton Board of Education as members voted without discussion to approve a budget for the 2012-13 school year.

The proposed budget spends $62.4 million.  That’s up $2.1 million — about 3.5% — from the current budget.  But some welcome increases in state aid and a reduction in the amount the state will take back to lower its own deficit mean that the tax levy increase is 1.9%.  That’s well below the limit in the new state tax cap law and below the 2% target the board had set for its own limit on the tax levy hike.

(The increase in the tax levy does not mean that a homeowner’s taxes will rise by 1.9%.  The amount homeowners pay is influenced by changes in property values in their city, town or village.)

If approved by the voters in May, this budget means that there will be no layoffs or program cuts next school year, for the first time in several years.  The district has eliminated more than 50 positions in the last three years, as the state has forced givebacks of education aid to fill most of the state budget deficit.

More cuts looked to be coming.  The district projected a deficit of more than $500,000 until a last-minute deal in Albany freed up an extra $200 million for education aid, with the money going primarily to high-need, low-wealth districts like Fulton.

The extra aid not only made up the deficit but provided enough to allow the district to lower the tax levy hike below the 2% target.

“Our goal this year was to maintain our programs and services and our supports for students,” said Superintendent Bill Lynch.

Nonetheless, there was no rejoicing.  The district, for the second year in a row, will pull $2 million from its reserve funds to balance the budget.

Lynch warned that this is the last year that Fulton can use that much money from its reserves.

He and members of the Board of Education were cheered, however, by the way state education aid was distributed this year.  Changes to the aid formula, which determines how much money each district will get, resulted in a “much more equitable” share for Fulton and other poor districts, Lynch said.

The state has largely ignored a court ruling in a case that it lost.  A group called the Campaign for Fiscal Equity sued the state and won, claiming that the state’s school aid funding formula was inequitable and favored wealthy districts.

There’s been no large-scale change in the funding formula to make it comply with the ruling in the court case, but this year’s tweaks reduced the inequity, experts said.

The budget goes to a public hearing May 2 and faces a public vote on the statewide school budget voting day, May 15.