Why hold a community forum on the school budget now, when everyone is distracted by the holidays and budget votes are five months off?
Port Chester school leaders answered that question Monday night and hammered it home again and again as hundreds listened at Port Chester Middle School: If the district doesn't get Albany's attention for budget relief, there will be major sacrifices to make up a budget gap of more than $3 million.
"This is exactly the advocacy window," said Maura McAward, assistant superintendent.
"We want everyone to know now, before the holidays, while there's still time to write letters," said Superintendent Edward Kliszus.
The goal is to arm Port Chester's state representatives with "a flood of letters" to bring to the table when budget talks shift into high gear early next year.
Enough letters, McAward said, for Assemblyman George Latimer and state Sen. Suzie Oppenheimer to walk into the legislature with their aides behind them, overburdened by boxes of correspondence from parents and taxpayers, "saying this is the outcry, pouring the letters out for everyone to see."
What makes this year different?
For the first time, leaders in Port Chester and other school districts are crafting budgets under New York State's new property tax cap. The cap limits tax levy increases to about two percent. This year's school budget is , and school leaders say a "rollover budget" for next year would come in at almost $84 million.
Like other districts, Port Chester has to fork over more money for mandatory expenses like pensions and benefits. Like other districts, Port Chester has to contend with smaller increases in areas like supplies, textbooks and technology infrastructure.
But where Port Chester differs from its neighbors is in state aid. In nearby districts like Harrison and Scarsdale, state aid accounts for five percent or less of the school budget.
In Port Chester, state aid is 20 percent of the school budget.
And because state aid has been frozen since the 2009-2010 fiscal year, a district like Port Chester feels the squeeze more than its wealthier neighbors.
On Monday night, school leaders pleaded with parents and taxpayers, asking them to write letters to Latimer, Oppenheimer and Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Sample letters on the district website provide templates for letters to the governor and representatives, urging them to restore state aid and shift the financial burden for mandatory spending on benefits and healthcare.
Latimer spoke briefly, emphasizing the urgency of the situation and calling for advocacy.
"I represent six school districts, and Port Chester is the district that needs this assistance more than any of the others," he said. " tells me that all the time."
Latimer acknowledged "there's a tendency to say, 'Why bother?'" But he said a mass letter-writing campaign will make a difference and give him the feedback he needs to push for financial relief for Port Chester schools.
"At the end of the day," he said, "Port Chester's voices will be heard."
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