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Hard choices face Marlboro residents

January 16th, 2013

With each passing week, a growing number of Marlborough residents network and gather information on how they can lessen the impacts of crippling school tax hikes they expect are coming in the wake of Dynegy’s recent auction and sale of their Danskammer and Roseton power plants.

Most residents, as well as the school board, believe the new owners of the plants will successfully sue to lower their assessments that will result in their paying significantly less in taxes and force residents to pay steep increases. Residents feel Dynegy’s questionable actions have left them with a Hobson’s choice of accepting one thing or nothing at all; a bitter, devastating legacy the Houston-based energy giant bequeaths to the region as they cease operations.

At last week’s meeting of Marlboro Community Concerns [MCC], many said they feel the only way to survive what is coming is to make cuts in the largest portion of the school tax levy — teachers’ salaries and benefits. In the 2012-13 school budget, salaries total $22,749,389 before stipends, insurance buyouts or perks. This is more than half of the $40 million tax levy in an overall school budget of $52 million. Some have called the present path unsustainable and have advocated for the legal dissolution of the school district entirely, voiding all contracts and building the school district anew from the ground up; one that is affordable and reflects present day economic realities.

The group has adopted the acronym PRIDE; to Preserve Residents’ Income and Defend Education. At the meeting a PowerPoint was presented, starting with their mission statement.

“We are proactive taxpayers, fighting to manage tax increases and to defend the educational program offered in our community by demanding a transparent, fiscally responsible restructuring of school district policies, resources and personnel.”

The presentation continued, stating they will “work to maintain quality teachers, quality programs and quality facilities for our students that are in the realm of affordability for taxpayers.”

MCC wishes to establish cooperative partnerships with the district and the administration; launch a grassroots effort to better educate and inform the public on district policies and decisions; identify and advocate for better efficiency and cost-saving measures; maintain quality teachers and facilities; develop parameters that can be used to measure programs and resources toward the ultimate goal of providing a quality education. They also want to review outsourcing support services and to hold a bid process for all district contracts above $15,000.
MCC has a presence on Facebook, visited predominantly by those in the 25 to 54 age bracket with 60 percent female and 40 percent male. There are approximately 3,400 who visit the site each week and a total reach of 75,000, including extended family and friends. There is also a Shame on Dynegy site on Facebook that continues to receive attention from the public.

A website called Marlboro PRIDE is presently under construction and will have an assortment of tabs: About Us, News, Events, Students, Subscribe, Contact and a Message Board. The group recently printed up lawn signs that will soon be popping up around town the and purchase of billboard time is being considered; all ways to get the word out to the public. An email has also been established at marlboroconcerns@gmail.com. MCC is working to reach national news outlets such as NBC, ABC, CBS and Fox News to describe the district’s plight, something they believe is occurring in other areas of the country.

MCC said this year school board members James Sullivan and Kenneth Brooks are up for re-election and indicated that board president Steve Jennison’s seat may also be up for grabs as he explores a run for town supervisor.

MCC is also moving to establish themselves as a not-for-profit organization while considering obtaining legal representation for the group.

MCC compiled a demographic profile of the district – which comprises Middle Hope, Marlboro, Milton and a portion of Plattekill. The data shows there are 12,226 people living in the district with a per capita income (18 yr +) of $41,668. The median household income is $64,000 and there are 3,375 owner/occupied housing units and 1,421 renter occupied units.

On the income side: 796 households make less than $25,000 annually; 523 make $25,000 to $40,000; 504 make $40,000 to $60,000; 1,202 make $60,000 to $100,000 and 1,335 have incomes above $100,000.

The school district has a total of 351 employees with a median salary of $71,373 before benefits, stipends and buyouts, which is 12 percent higher than the public at large. They believe, however, that the district teacher average salary is closer to $85,000.

District benefits total $4.4 million annually, stipends add another $500,000 to the budget and annual contractually required retirement costs hit $3.2 million in this budget cycle.

MCC broke out the salaries of employees: 65 school district employees make less than $25,000 annually; 48 make $20,000 to $40,000; 34 make $40,000 to $60,000; 141 make $60,000 to $100,000 [with 90 in this category at more than $90,000] and 63 make more than $100,000.

The presentation compared several recent Marlboro school budgets: $49.4 million in 2009-10 with a tax levy of $37.6 million; $49.9 million in 2010-2011 with a tax levy of $39.1 million and $52.9 million in 2011-12 with a tax levy of $40.6 million. During this time student enrollment dropped from 2,250 to 2,081, while the annual cost per pupil reached $20,625.

Neighboring school districts all came in at lower cost per pupil totals: Highland at $16,108; Newburgh $18,523; Cornwall $14,839; New Paltz $19,505; Wallkill $15,904; Valley Central $16,484 and Washingtonville at $16,533. It was noted that Marlborough’s cost per pupil was on par with far more affluent districts in Westchester County and Long Island. A critical difference, however, is that these districts to the south all have far more diverse tax bases and do not rely upon a single tax source, as has been the case locally with Dynegy.

Bus transportation was another hot button issue; with Marlborough spending $1,636 per pupil annually – 50 percent more than the state average and higher than their surrounding districts that spend between $816 (Highland) to $1,380 (New Paltz) annually per pupil. It was noted that the district has not bid out this contract and has awarded it to Carroll Busing for quite some time, while being told “we were getting the best deal possible,” a statement not supported by the dollar outlays. The bus contract is now under review.

The PowerPoint highlighted central administration costs: In the top slot, Superintendent Ray Castellani makes $214,461 annually [$160,995 in salary and $53,466 in benefits]. This equates to $4,124 weekly.

MCC also noted that the average cost for central administration in the state, excluding NYC, was 5.2 percent of the annual budget, while Marlboro was at 10.4 percent this year. That figure hit 11 percent for the 2008-09 school year.

Neighboring districts spend, on average, 8 to 9 percent of their budgets on central administration costs. If Marlboro were to match their neighboring costs the district would save $1.5 million and if they were to equal the state average, savings would double to more than $3 million.

Going forward, MCC said they do expect the new owners to pay the $17.2 million owed to the district and may use an approximate $5 million reserve fund to help offset an anticipated tax hike for the 2013-14 school year. But beyond this, the group said there has been little planning five years into the future when the economic pain is expected to be felt far more deeply across the community. Some advocated for the school district to immediately develop more specific plans and to make significant cuts now, especially in salaries, and not to wait until the end of a 12 month to 18 month projected “safe” period window. The group said plans should be made from five years to 15 years into the future in order to ensure a stable tax base for residents and sound educational programs for the school district.

By MARK REYNOLDS
mreynolds@tcnewspapers.com

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