Shool officials in the Saugerties Central School District last week gave the public a sneak peek at the first draft of a $61.2 million spending plan for 2016-17. The budget draft would increase spending by $1.89 million, a spending bump of 3.18 percent over the 2015-16 plan.
Discussed during a meeting of the Board of Education on Tuesday, February 9, the budget process keeps in mind a state-mandated property tax cap, which is just 0.21 percent, bringing in the maximum levy at around $37.23 million. Lissa Jilek, the district’s business administrator, explained that districts are allowed to surpass the tax cap, but they need a super majority of 60 percent voter approval rather than a simple majority of 50 percent.
“It’s not really a cap,” Jilek said. “It’s really a voter threshold.”
Superintendent Seth Turner said the tax levy increase, which projects to $77,521, came as something of a surprise.
“I laughed because I thought that the value was actually pretty close to what it costs us to hold the election for people to vote on Board members and on the budget,” Turner said. “That’s near $50,000 on an annual basis, and we’re barely able to raise our taxes enough to cover people’s ability to have their voices be heard.”
Turner stressed that it was far too early in the process for stress, especially as there’s a chance the district will receive more in state aid than they’re anticipating. Last month, Governor Andrew Cuomo detailed a proposed budget that would give the district an aid package of $21,694,119. Without building aid, the total comes in at $19,317,258, an increase of 1.62 percent over 2015-16. Those figures are made up of $14,534,484 in foundation aid, $1,341,598 in BOCES aid, $2,139,416 in transportation aid, and a number of other items. While that’s already an increase, school officials said they expect there may be more on the way.
“Is that (aid figure) something that we can take to the bank yet? No,” said Jilek, adding that the legislature may be pushing for more aid to school districts. “Do we feel that we’re going to receive more than the $21.6 (million)? Hopefully yes. We’re looking hopefully to have an increase in foundation aid that’s meaningful, and we’re hoping to see the end of the Gap Elimination Adjustment (GEA). The state still is withholding approximately $630,000 from the proposed ‘16-‘17 revenues, and that would go quite a long way toward balancing the budget.”
Cuomo has recommended the phasing out over two years of the GEA, a program the governor instituted in 2010-11 to overcome a budget deficit by decreasing state aid to school districts. Last year, school districts began to see some of that funding reappear, and Cuomo’s budget proposal includes an increase of around $2.1 billion in education aid, in part to make up for the $443 million in lost aid under the GEA. But there was hope the GEA would be gone by now, not only locally but also in the state senate. Last month, state senators voted 53-9 to support the immediate elimination of the GEA, and there’s some optimism in districts like Saugerties that could come to fruition. Locally, school officials estimate that the GEA has cost the district around $13.2 million in aid.
Under its current configuration, the tax cap would only allow for the district to make up what it estimates to be an imbalance of $756,124 between revenues and expenses. But Jilek cautioned that it part of that is that there are still so many unknowns at this stage of the process.
“Our revenues and expenditures at this point do not match, which is OK because we still have lots to consider,” she said. “We haven’t received the final rates for health insurance and that’s a significant line item. And Mr. Turner and I will go back and revisit all of these categories and try to whittle it down so it does match.”
“It is very early,” he said. “I’ve learned not to be concerned with that gap.”
The details of the district’s likely expenses won’t be revealed until a meeting of the Board of Education planned for Tuesday, March 8, school officials said. But they did run through a summary last week. Instructional expenses came in at $33.62 million — a $1.79 million, or 5.63 percent increase; undistributed funds were listed at $18.83 million for a 0.85 percent decrease of $162,138, a drop which Jilek said was a lower rate for teacher and employee retirement; general support came in at $4.89 million, an increase of 5.29 percent Jilek said was due to an increase in BOCES administrative costs; and pupil transportation was listed at $3.85 million, an increase of $13,527, or 0.35 percent.
Turner said the district was looking at hiring at least three new teachers for the 2016-17 school year.
“We’re looking at potentially two new elementary teachers being necessary,” he said. “That’s based on live birth statistics, and that will also become more clear as we do our kindergarten registration at the very beginning of March.”
The district could also look to hire a full time ESL teacher to replace a part-time teacher currently being funded by BOCES.
“It looks as though we’re going to need that person here (in the district) full time,” Turner said. “We’ll be hiring someone, because BOCES is re-deploying that individual.”
Turner said there has been a request from high school administrators to add summer school to the budget. The superintendent said that would be in it and that there may be changes in the way the district runs its after-school alternative education program as well.
“We’re trying to shift that to really help our students meet their needs for graduation working through some credit recovery during those opportunities as well,” Turner said.
So while it might be tempting to look at the first draft of the budget and assume that’s what will be presented to voters in May, Jilek cautioned that there is still plenty of information the district doesn’t have yet and plenty of work to be done.
“We still have a to-do list,” she said. “We’re going to continue to evaluate student needs, (for) all of our students; look at kindergarten registration; ESL; we’re going to review school safety and security; we’re going to review the school technology plan, which is in conjunction with the Smart Schools Bond Act; and the administrative restructure plan.”