By DAVE GYMBURCH Staff writer

As the Rome school district nears a first look at a 2012-13 budget, it faces a $400,000-plus increase over which it has no control, "right out of the gate," says Director of Business and Finance Christopher Abdoo.

The newly projected hike, for the district’s annual contribution to the state Teachers’ Retirement System (TRS), is an "unfunded mandate by Albany" that poses even further concerns in light of a new property tax cap taking effect next year, Abdoo says.

The cap is geared to limit tax increases to 2 percent, although school districts conceivably could exceed that with various exemptions and formulas. A 1 percent rise in the Rome district’s local tax levy would equate to about $285,000, said Abdoo, noting that the projected $400,000-plus TRS increase could "eat up a significant portion of the tax cap" even before other factors are considered.

The increased TRS rate was discussed at the Board of Education’s meeting last week, based on recent data from the retirement system. The board’s finance committee on Jan. 10 will have an "early discussion" of the 2012-13 district budget, including "broad categories" for projected expenses, said committee chair Jennifer Geiger. Revenue details, including whether state aid levels would continue the dramatic cuts of recent years, are not yet expected for that meeting. The budget would take effect next July 1.

The current 2011-12 budget is $98.7 million, including about $3.8 million for TRS contributions involving teachers, administrators and teacher assistants, plus about $34.7 million for their salaries, said Abdoo. The rate for TRS contributions, at about 11.1 percent of the 2011-12 salaries, is projected to rise to between 11.5 and 12.5 percent in 2012-13, he said; that would add over $400,000 to the district’s expense, he estimated.

The TRS contribution rates for districts have been increasing in recent years to make up for poor investment returns on pension funds due to overall stock market difficulties. The hike was even larger for the district’s 2011-12 budget, rising by over $1 million, Abdoo noted.

"If there’s a silver lining...that’s the silver lining," said Abdoo of the smaller rise for 2012-13, but he emphasized it is "still an increase" that must be paid. The only way to directly lower the expense would be to "reduce payroll costs," he remarked.

Geiger noted the TRS hike is on top of anticipated budget increases for already approved union contracts plus health insurance coverage, which also are areas over which the district has little control and "no way to affect them." The district cannot simply cover such costs with higher taxes, she said, adding that the expenses "highlight how the poor communities" with low tax bases "cannot absorb increases without cutting."

The 2011-12 budget included 15 layoff notices for teachers plus about 17 attrition cuts of teacher positions, along with 26 layoffs of TAs and teacher aides. Most of the teachers who received layoff notices were called back or reassigned.

The TRS includes over 500 district teachers, administrators and TAs. The district also makes contributions to a separate Employee Retirement System that covers over 200 other support staffers and has a smaller budget impact. District enrollment is about 5,700 students.