Tonawanda News

May 15, 2013

NT budget, school board candidates debated

By Michael Regan
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — The North Tonawanda Board of Education held its last meeting Tuesday before voters head to the polls next week to either back or reject a spending plan that includes a 2.56 percent increase in taxes slated for the 2013-2014 school year. 

The board voted unanimously to adopt a $65,740,756 budget in April, which would mean a $53.60 jump in resident’s school tax bills for every $100,000 of assessed property value if approved.

Board members have described this year’s budgetary process as less vexing than the last several years — when a state-mandated tax cap, the closure of Gilmore Elementary School and steep staff cuts were incurred.

That idea seemed to be supported by attendance numbers on Tuesday, with only several dozen residents on hand, only a few of them vocal, compared to a year ago when hundreds flooded into the Alumni Student Activity Center to voice their concerns.

Assistant Superintendent Allan Getter, who gave a brief presentation, indicated to the small crowd that while this year may have been a more subdued budget, challenges still lie ahead including the consistent utilization of reserve funds, the loss of federal and state aid and the growing problem of unchecked health insurance costs, though the district has sized down its staffing numbers from 630 to 563 since 2010 as enrollment numbers shrank from 3,820 to 3,661 during the same time frame. 

The district has earmarked $1.7 million in reserve funds to help cover costs for the the 2013-14 school year that Getter said was used to keep taxes lower than the 4.77 percent allotted under a complex state formula that starts at 2 percent, but allows exceptions for certain types of spending.

“This is the second year of the tax cap,” he said. “It’s very rarely 2 percent.” 

Five school board candidates running for two open seats also gave short presentations on their platforms in front those in attendance. 

Incumbent Art Pappas, a board member for more than 15 years who serves on a variety of committees in the city, said at a time when challenges to educational system are at a peak, the board needs an individual who can provide understanding of the intricacies and leadership in addressing problems.

“An experienced educator is necessary on a school board now more than ever,” the retired teacher said, adding that the district is encountering “fewer supplies, fewer resources” in recent years. 

Colleen Osborn, who served the last two years on the board and works in the medical industry, said it was her son’s battle with cancer that first led her to run for a seat, a role she has evolved into after admittedly encountering a learning curve during her early tenure, before establishing herself as an outspoken board member.

“I’ve been the voice of reason, I’ve made decisions that made people very unhappy,” she said of her time on the board. “I’’ll fight for our children’s education.” 

Robert Schmigel, Randy Bradt and Susanne Williams, who have never run for a slot on the school board, said it is their experience as parents of children in the district that should make them a top choice for voters, along with a professional background dealing with management and finance. 

Bradt, an accountant and financial advisor with an Amherst firm, said he has spent years as president of the North Tonawanda Athletic Association, and believes his financial background could be an asset to the board. 

“Many times I have heard people ask, ‘where does all the money go?’” he said, referring to the district’s finances. “We need better results.” 

Schmigel, a manager at CVS Pharmacy in the Mid-City Plaza, also cited his experience overseeing budgets and managing people. 

“I understand the needs of being financially accountable,” he said. “I promise to be that voice not only as a parent, but as a taxpayer.” 

Williams, a medical office manager, said that raising a deaf child will make bolstering special education programs a priority for her, while time spent “managing millions of dollars” in her professional life would help her make sound decisions for the district. 

“I want to make North Tonawanda a better district than it already is today,” she said. 

Polls are open for both the budget referendum and school board races from noon to 9 p.m. Tuesday at the Alumni Student Activity Center on the high school’s Meadow Drive campus.

Contact reporter Michael Regan at 693-1000, ext. 4115.