This year, the Fredonia Central School District raised its taxes by a notable amount compared to previous years. But as a sign of good faith, the district has decided to readjust the tax rate and return a portion of the money to the taxpayers of the district after state aid figures came in well above what the district had expected.
At a recent meeting of the Board of Education, the board was tasked with approving expenditures for the 2023-24 school budget now that the final figures were released.
But as part of the budget, the district underestimated how much the state would provide in foundation aid. An additional $259,267 was provided to the district in state funding.
Budget Proposition No. 1, as approved by the voters, allowed for the district to expend a budget amount not to exceed $34,434,570 for the 2023-24 fiscal year, with a tax levy of 3.25%. However, the increased figure of state aid received raised the overall budget to $34,693,837.
“We’re very appreciative of the Fredonia school community, which continues to support our district in a lot of different ways, (including) financially. This year, we went out at a tax increase of 3.25% and that was supported by the community, so thank you to everybody for that,” said Fredonia Superintendent Dr. Brad Zilliox. “It is appreciated, and it is not lost on us — the commitment and the cost in all of that.”
The 2023-24 budget was increased by over $2.5 million from the 2022-23 budget — more than a 7% increase from one year to the next.
Before the final figures were accepted, the Board of Education had the discussion on whether to hold onto the money the voters already approved to provide the district, or whether to adjust the tax rate to return a portion of the money the district was approved to collect.
Zilliox and Business Administrator John Forbes each recommended the tax warrant be accepted as presented, due to increased costs in many areas eating into the district’s remaining funds. The increased state aid could have been added to the district’s reserve funds or applied to additional expenses. Forbes stated the district is currently slightly over budget for the second straight year.
“We are feeling like, in this moment, we need to be very conservative and protect the district’s assets,” Zilliox said.
The Board of Education wanted to see a rate under 3% because the district had not asked for a rate of 3% or higher in any of the recent years of examples they were presented. To lower the tax rate under 3%, the adjusted budget came in at $34,651,243 — which represented a savings of $42,594 for the taxpayers.
Board of Education Vice President Steven Johnston was the first of the members to address the topic. “I guess my question is, could we find that $42,000 in increased expenditures that we could trim,” Johnston asked.
Johnston continued, “I don’t want to cut something that’s necessary … but we’re stewards of the taxpayers’ money.”
After further discussion, the five members at the meeting — with Courtney Gullo and Tom Hawk not in attendance — took a straw vote on the matter. The vote was split 2-2 until Board of Education President Brian Aldrich voted to decrease the rate and return a portion of the taxes to the residents.
“My concern is, how will the taxpayers look at this,” Aldrich said.
Board members Aaron Marshall and Lisa Powell Fortna initially wanted to leave the rate at 3.25%, while members Sheila Starkey Hahn, Johnston, and Aldrich all favored lowering the rate. The matter was then tabled momentarily, as Forbes excused himself from the meeting to prepare accurate figures for the board to review later in the meeting.
“I think that finances are as much of an attitude as they are about numbers,” Aldrich said. “If I, in my household, receive $10,000 of additional funds … I wouldn’t automatically go find a place to spend it. That’s kind of what I feel that we’ve looked at here with these state funds. We’ve approved a budget where we said ‘we can make this amount work’ and the voters approved that. Now we’ve ‘found’ this extra $260,000.”
“I think it’s important that we’re having the conversation,” said Fortna. “… We have a lot of conversations about this and we take it very seriously. … On a $34 million budget, we’re talking about $42,000.”
Approximately an hour after Forbes left to prepare the updated hypothetical figures, the board came to a decision. As part of the adjustments, Forbes decreased the budgeted expenses for special education placement out of district to accommodate for the lower rate.
Unanimously, the board voted in favor of decreasing the tax rate to 2.99% and to return the difference of $42,594 to the taxpayers.
“I really appreciate that our taxpayers are willing to step up when we ask them to. As a result, I only want to ask them to when we really need them to do that,” said Hahn. “Even if it’s an insignificant amount per household that comes back to them, I agree with dropping the tax levy down to 2.99%.”