Niskayuna school board weighs max tax levy hike of 3 percent

Niskayuna High School. (Marc Schultz)Niskayuna High School. (Marc Schultz)

NISKAYUNA — Niskayuna school board members appear ready to support raising local taxes by the maximum amount allowed under the district’s tax cap — just over 3 percent.

Board members said during a Tuesday meeting that the district had demonstrated restraint in recent budget years, staying within its levy limit and leaving local taxes nearly flat in 2015 and 2016. The growing district’s needs also justify the tax increase, they said.

If the board does hit the ceiling on its tax levy increase this year — which district officials estimate at 3.07 percent, or around $1.5 million more in local taxes collected than last year — it would represent the largest increase in four years.

But the district is looking to add two new social worker positions, improve its mental health services and add teachers to keep up with increasing enrollment. Even with a 3 percent increase, district officials said they could not make all of the improvements they want.

“We’ve done a really good job of keeping (tax increases) at a reasonable amount, and we keep … talking about adding back a lot of the things we cut,” board President Rosemarie Perez Jaquith said at Tuesday’s meeting. “My general sense is the community, given what we have done and what still needs to be done, would support something reasonable like that.”

Most other board members agreed a 3 percent increase was reasonable and could be sold to the public, though some pressed administrators to present the board a budget option that would include smaller tax increases. They also wanted to lay out for the community what types of investments couldn’t be made with a 3 percent levy increase.

Superintendent Cosimo Tangorra said district officials planned to propose a budget to the school board in two weeks, and that he didn’t expect the district’s state funding levels to improve much in the meantime.

“We may receive a bit more, but it’s unlikely it’s gonna be much,” Tangorra said.

Under Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s state budget proposal, Niskayuna’s state aid would be boosted by about 2.4 percent.

“We have built a budget so far that goes to 3.1 percent … which doesn’t even allow us to do everything we want to do.”

Tuesday’s meeting, at which a handful of students addressed the school board about school safety concerns, also infused the safety issue into the budget process. Tangorra said he had not been planning to fund any major safety improvements in this year’s budget, but board members expressed an interest in looking into additional safety measures as part of this year’s budget.

“We haven’t talked about anything in the budget for safety and security,” board member David Koes said. “We have to get something in there, I think, for next year; I don’t know what that is yet.”

While district tax caps are widely described as being 2 percent, that rate is a baseline from which districts adjust their individual caps based on other factors. If Niskayuna increases taxes up to its tax cap, it needs majority approval in the May budget vote; if it wants to exceed the cap, which wasn’t under discussion at the board meeting, the district would need approval from at least 60 percent of voters.

The tax cap represents how much the district plans to increase its tax levy — the total amount collected in local taxes. The actual tax rate that individual homeowners would pay is calculated later and depends on where each resident lives in the district.