The Fort Edward school budget just costs too much, residents said as they reluctantly voted against the budget for a second time Tuesday.
“As a former educator, I believe students would be better off as part of a larger district because they’ll have more opportunities,” said voter Janice Price.
The budget was rejected by a vote of 318 voting no to 309 voting yes.
Now the district must make “massive” cuts, said Superintendent Dan Ward.
The district is required, by state law, to go to a contingency budget that has strict spending limits. Before Tuesday’s vote, Ward said the district would meet those limits by cutting all athletics, extracurricular activities and clubs, counseling and mental health resources. It would also eliminate many opportunities for students to participate in band, chorus and art, and increase class sizes.
The school board has already agreed on those reductions.
The situation is heartbreaking, a recent grad said.
“Athletics had a big impact on my life. Fort Edward would not be the same without it,” said voter Amy Dixon, who graduated in 2019. She voted yes on the budget.
But voter Kevin Price, who voted no, said the cost was just too high.
“We won’t be able to live here much longer,” he said. “It’s terrible. Ruining our property values. We certainly understand increases each year, but double digit? Come on!”
The district reduced spending in the 2020-2021 budget. But taxes must increase to make up for the loss of a major taxpayer: the former PCB-cleanup dewatering facility. The district’s total assessed value has decreased by about $7 million to just under $103 million.
To cut costs, the support staff union agreed to switch to a less expensive health insurance plan like the teachers association did, which saves about $95,000. Ward also renegotiated his contract and the district planned to use fewer BOCES services.
The estimated tax rate would have been $33.37 per $1,000 of assessed value. The owner of a home assessed at $100,000 would have paid $600 more in taxes. For people without any exemptions, they would have paid $3,337 in school taxes on a $100,000 house. For Basic STAR it would have been $2,801, and for Enhanced STAR it would have been $2,265.
Many residents said they didn’t like the double-digit increase but voted for the budget anyway.
“We need a budget. The kids have to go to school. You gotta pay for it,” said voter Belva Grant.
Others said the tax increase wasn’t as bad as the cuts that would be required if the budget failed.
“I believe the community has to give the children the best education,” said voter Michael Glass.
And some cast a yes vote thinking about the future, in which the district might have to merge with another district to stay afloat. They were hoping the community would continue to support the district instead.
“Both my kids went to Fort Edward School. My grandson now goes to Fort Edward. I really want him to finish out just with Fort Edward School,” said voter Sue Elliott. “At a smaller school, they’re big fish in a small pond. They’re individuals here.”
Ward said he was “disappointed” by the vote.
“We have to go to a contingency budget which will require very very large cuts,” he said, but noted that fewer people voted in favor of this budget than the last one. The first vote was 431 in favor to 386 in opposition.
“It certainly is the will of the voters,” he said. “We’ll find a path forward.”
As for sports, the fall season was uncertain in any case because of coronavirus, and it’s not yet clear if competitions will happen at other districts. But Ward said all sports at Fort Edward would be canceled because of the cost.
“Even if there are athletics, there won’t be that opportunity for our students,” he said.
The district had needed more than a majority to pass the budget. Because the budget went over the tax cap, it needed 60% approval .
In total, 49% of voters supported the budget.
The school district’s first budget passed, but it also didn’t come close to the 60% approval rate.
The second budget would have allowed the district to spend $11.646 million, with a 14% increase in the tax levy. The budget that was defeated last month had a 19.8% tax levy increase.
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