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Letter To Editor: Former Rye School Board Member Explains His 'No Vote'

Former Rye Board of Education member Bob Zahm says he'll "vote no" to override the tax cap and won't support Tuesday's proposed budget put to a vote from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. at Rye Middle School.
Former Rye Board of Education member Bob Zahm says he'll "vote no" to override the tax cap and won't support Tuesday's proposed budget put to a vote from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. at Rye Middle School. Photo Credit: File photo

RYE, N.Y. -- The Rye City School District’s budget for 2015-16 is up for public vote Tuesday.

If you have a child in the Rye Schools or have been reading the local papers, you’ve no doubt been impressed by the importance of getting this budget passed because if it fails, our schools will fail, property prices will immediately sink, and the world as we know it will end.

The District and Board of Education’s core message is that because school enrollment has grown so much over the past 10 years and tax increases have been kept so low by using reserves that an over sized increase is needed this year. If the budget doesn’t pass, dramatic cuts will be required to the educational program.  Those would be incredibly convincing arguments IF all the facts lined up to support them.  But they just don’t.

Starting with enrollment, the District reports it has grown significantly over the past 10 years, a total of 18.2 percent. That is a lot, but it ignores the slowdown in the past few years (5.3 percent over the

past 5 years) and the actual decline forecast for next year. But, “Trust us," the District says, “The forecasts are always wrong”.

More complex is the reserves story.  I have repeatedly argued that the District needs to stop using its reserves for on-going expenses. That’s like using your IRA to pay for your work commute. The proposed budget appears to be an improvement by using $1.3 million in reserves. But $1.3 million will still be paying for an awful lot of light bulbs, printer paper, teacher salaries, etc.

The District forecasts a further fall in reserves usage to $770,000 in 2016-17 if next year’s Board agrees and all the assumptions pan out.  But the key point being ignored is that the proposed override does not stop material use of reserves. And that means, unless reductions in spending can be found, that additional overrides will be needed. So, given the District’s assertion that it has already done just about everything it can to cut costs, forget the idea that this override is a “once and done” emergency action.

Look for additional override votes, possibly as soon as next year.

So, where is the money to be found to reduce the use of reserves and maintain the quality of a Rye education? Reducing spending from the current year’s level for Facilities, “District Wide”, Transportation, Technology, Athletics, and Curriculum development by 5 percent produces a 2015-16 budget of $81.5 million, or about $1.4 million less than that being proposed.  These would be cuts versus the current year’s budget which is being under spent anyway. But such cuts would not be in instruction, not to the new all-day kindergarten program, not to elementary school class size and not to foreign language. In short, such cuts would meet past Board’s goals of “keeping the cuts away from the kids”.  And the cuts create a budget which fits within the tax cap AND matches the proposed reduction in use of reserves. Even better, scare tactics wouldn’t be needed to pass such a budget. But it would require revision to the Superintendent’s proposal on which we all get to vote on Tuesday.

Of course, if you still want to favor the override, by all means do so, but making such small cuts to non-student facing areas AND passing the override would provide the District with $1.35 million more than required and that could be used to end the use of reserves for operational expenses. But the Board won’t make that happen unless the voters tell them to.

My prose may be a little over-wrought, but I’m no match for the rhetoric and scare tactics being used to promote a budget that, frankly, could be a lot better with less spending and a real end to the use of reserves for foreseeable, operational costs.

Bob Zahm lives in the City of Rye and is a former Board of Education member.

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