School budget: Targeting 2 or less

KCSD Superintendent Paul Padalino.

KCSD Superintendent Paul Padalino.

Though hit hard by the recent federal sequestration numbers, officials in the Kingston City School District are still anticipating crafting an operating budget for the 2013-14 school year with a tax levy increase of 2 percent or less.

“I can say confidently we are not going to 3.95 [percent tax levy increase],” said Superintendent Paul Padalino. “We will be significantly below the tax levy limit.” While the tax cap enacted by the state is generally referred to as the “2 percent tax cap,” for school districts, many other factors are plugged in to come up with a final allowable hike, which varies from district to district.

During the first of a planned series of budget forums leading up to the public vote on the fate of the spending plan in May, Padalino explained that for the district to override the state’s allowable tax cap increase for Kingston of 3.95 percent, voters would have to approve the plan by a margin of 60 percent or higher.

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“While 3.95 percent is permitted, we must weigh the need for taxpayer relief and the community’s ability to pay,” said Padalino during the forum, held in the district’s Cioni Administration Building on Crown Street on Wednesday, Feb. 27. “Our goal remains unchanged: Balance the needs of our students with the values of our community and their ability to pay.”

Padalino opened the forum — essentially a presentation of the currently known facts and figures followed by a Q&A session — with the least likely scenario of all: The rollover budget. For a district planning on closing three more elementary schools and undertaking a monumental redistricting plan, including moving the fifth grade out of elementary school and into middle school, and which just one week earlier announced that 47 employees had accepted a one-time retirement incentive, a static budget simply won’t happen. But for the sake of continuity, here’s what that would look like: If the district duplicated the current $143 million spending plan, that would result in a $7,778,826 increase, a roughly 7.5 percent tax levy increase.

Padalino cautioned that the rollover budget does not include any savings reaped by the closure of Anna Devine, Sophie Finn and Zena elementary schools this year. In fact, none of the redistricting plan factored into it, partly because many of those details are still being calculated. (According to Padalino, he will have a full update on the redistricting plan later this month.) School officials estimated the district would save around $4.76 million per year following the implementation of the plan, but some of those savings will likely go back into other district programs and initiatives.

“The district is in transition,” Padalino said. “We’re reshaping the education philosophy for the benefit of all our students through these mergers.”

Other numbers not relating to the redistricting plan are likely to rise significantly, Padalino said. Pension increases for teachers and other employees are expected to total around $3,820,000. Increases in health insurance costs for district employees are also supposed to rise to the tune of $2,200,000.

While Padalino said he remains optimistic that an increase in state aid of around $750,000 will still come through, sequestration will likely hit federally aided programs like Title I and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) the hardest when it goes into effect during the 2013-14 school year.

“By and large, our Title I and IDEA funds are spent on people,” Padalino said. “We have a legal obligation to provide many of these special education services. We will have to find the money from somewhere else. Three-hundred thousand dollars in a $150 million budget doesn’t sound like a lot, but that’s four teachers.”

According to the New York State School Boards Association, the Kingston City School District will lose $237,845 in federal aid as a result of sequestration. Padalino said the district will have to look within to make up the difference.

“There are schools throughout the state that are closing,” Padalino said. “Two-hundred sixty-six schools in the state of New York are closing this year. Many districts are going to Albany to look for additional funding, but we need to focus our organizational energy here in Kingston for what we can do for our school district. We need to focus our organizational energy on operating in this new reality … New York State has shifted a $10 billion budget gap to communities by reducing school aid.”

Padalino said numbers unlikely to factor into the final budget draft include revenue from SUNY Ulster’s planned satellite campus in Sophie Finn after the current school year — we don’t have a signed lease yet, so we don’t know what the revenue is going to be” — and new contracts for four of the district’s five bargaining units. Unions including the Kingston Teachers Federation are still working under the terms of their prior contracts, and Padalino said last week that doesn’t look like it’s going to change anytime soon.

“We’re not in a place where we can plug in numbers on a new contract,” he said. “We’re not even close at this point.”

As for what is known, Padalino said that in order to enact a 2-percent tax levy increase, the district would have to cut roughly $5.1 million from its current spending plan. For a 1 percent tax levy increase, that cut would rise to $6.04 million. And for no tax levy increase, the district would have to trim $6.97 million.

“If we have to make cuts, we want to make them as far away from students as possible,” Padalino said.

The next budget forum is scheduled for Wednesday, March 13 at J. Watson Bailey Middle School. Though the district is planning on the forum lasting from 6-7:30 p.m., the format of the meeting will possibly be less rigid than the first. Other forums are also in the works, with live streams, archived video and PowerPoint files available on the district’s official website: www.kingstoncityschools.org.

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