Schools see promise in survey

A cap-piercing budget is looking more likely


The Baldwin School District recently conducted a phone and Internet survey of parents and residents to gauge their receptiveness to a 2013-14 budget that would exceed the state’s tax levy increase cap for the district of 3.14 percent.

The district is facing a funding shortfall of more than $6 million as it looks toward the next school year — a deficit that, under the cap, would force drastic cuts to programs including arts and music, kindergarten, athletics, extracurricular activities and more. The district is exploring the idea that a 60 percent supermajority of residents might be willing to vote to exceed the cap. The phone survey was an attempt to gauge how large a tax increase the community might be open to.

The survey was conducted with parents of district students on Jan. 14, and was also available at between Jan. 14 and 16. The online version, the district said, was for residents who do not have children in district schools or who missed the initial calls.

The survey consisted of four questions. Below are the queries, and the distribution of public response.

Question 1: Would you be willing to vote for a tax levy increase above the tax cap to prevent significant program cuts?

Agree: 51.5

Disagree: 33.5

Undecided: 15

Question 2: Would you be willing to pay about $750 more each year in taxes, for the average household, with no major program cuts?

Agree: 40

Disagree: 48

Undecided: 12

Question 3: Would you be willing to pay about $550 more each year in taxes, for the average household, with some modest program cuts?

Agree: 40

Disagree: 47

Undecided: 13

Question 4: Would you support a referendum that would change bus transportation limits for students but offset about $1 million in program cuts?

Agree: 44

Disagree: 36

Undecided: 20

The results of the survey, compiled on Jan. 23, were the subject of conversation at a community input meeting that evening at Baldwin Middle School. Emphasizing that he, his fellow administrators and Board of Education trustees had received the poll results only that afternoon, Superintendent Dr. James Mapes said he was “cautiously optimistic” about the outcome.

Mapes, who did not have exact numbers at hand during the discussion, said that only about 1,000 parents and residents responded to the survey. (Baldwin’s population is around 30,000.) He couched his reaction in terms of the small sample size, but characterized the results of the questions about tax increases as a mix of mostly positive and undecided responses.

Mapes said that the question about transportation cuts elicited “inconclusive to slightly positive” responses. The question was included because the school board sees transportation reduction as part of a comprehensive budget package — which presents a challenge. The law requires a separate referendum for any changes in transportation policy, so school officials will have to figure out how to present two items — and two votes — as parts 1 and 1A of a single budget plan.

Although Mapes said that no strong trends were evident in the poll numbers, he appeared to feel that a cap-exceeding budget was the way to go. “The survey

indicates that, with a lot of work, we could probably pass a budget that pierces the cap,” he said.

The reactions from trustees at the meeting — and the tenor of previous budget work sessions — make it clear that the school board is strongly considering a budget that goes beyond the tax cap. The stakes in such an attempt would be high. If a budget containing tax increases above 3.14 percent were voted down, the district would be forced to offer a second proposal. It could be identical to the first, or could include spending reductions. If the second proposal failed, the district would revert to a contingency spending plan, with no increases at all. Mapes said that a contingency budget would mean $9 million in cuts to school funding.

The next budget work session is scheduled for Feb. 6, at 8 p.m., at Baldwin Senior High School.