Saugerties school budget gap remains, but officials aren’t worried

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

Earlier this month, administrators in the Saugerties Central School District revealed more information about their budget plans for the 2016-17 school year, with a gap between revenues and expenses coming in at roughly $420,000. But while that might seem like a substantial amount, school officials said they’re not concerned about it yet.

The budget was discussed during a school board meeting at Cahill Elementary School on Tuesday, March 8. On the expenses side, the district is looking at $60,857,476, while revenues would come in at $60,439,139, said the Business Administrator Lissa Jilek. Revenues in the tentative budget include the state-mandated property tax cap, just 0.21 percent, with the maximum levy at around $37.23 million.

But school officials have said that things can and likely will change with both revenues and expenses. On the expenses side, the district has already trimmed over $300,000. And on the revenues side, well, anything can happen.

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In January, Gov. Andrew Cuomo detailed a proposed state budget that would give the Saugerties Central School 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.

There is also an increasing likelihood that the Gap Elimination Adjustment (GEA) will come immediately. 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. In January, 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. In 2016-17, the GEA is currently slated to coast Saugerties around $630,000, more than enough to make up for the gap between revenues and expenses in the current budget plan.

“We have several options, but we also have a month,” said Jilek. “And we need to find out what is going on in Albany. I have not heard anything about state aid. It has been very, very quiet considering they have to have a budget completed by April 1. Keep your eyes and your ears open.”

While the deadline for the state budget is looming, the district has a bit more time. The board of education is expected to vote on adopting the budget on Tuesday, April 12. And the public will have their say at the polls on Tuesday, May 17. Which gives the district a little breathing room, plenty enough time, Superintendent Seth Turner said, to overcome what is a relatively small gap.

“We are budgeted accurately to 99.3 percent at this time,” he said. “I’m not going to lose sleep yet.”

School officials have said it’s unlikely they’d break the tax cap, which would require a supermajority of at least 60 percent voter approval. A budget coming in at or below the cap would only require a simple majority.

In early February, school officials mentioned the possibility of hiring three new teachers, as well as bringing summer school back for the first time in nearly a decade. At the March 9 meeting, Assistant Superintendent Laurence Mautone expanded on those plans.

“We currently have two full time teachers for English language learners, and then we also contract through BOCES for our .5 position, and have two other sections at the junior/senior high school,” said Mautone. “We are no longer going to get that individual from BOCES. We are going to take that .5 back and create another full time position here.”

Mautone said that he was requesting that the replacement teacher would be dual-certified as an ENL (English as a New Language) and ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher.

“That would allow us more flexibility scheduling students and also allow us to give more individualized attention to our ENL students as well where we can pull them separately if we so choose,” he said.

Mautone added that the other two teachers would be assigned to elementary schools, likely Grant D. Morse and C.M. Riccardi, increasing the total number of elementary school classes in the district from 60 to 62.

“We anticipated early in the year by looking at population projections that we would probably need two additional elementary teachers for the ’16-17 year based on our numbers coming in,” he said. “By looking at the kindergarten registration numbers, I think we’re right on with that.”

One area that could operate without the district hiring additional teachers is the senior high alternative learning (SAL) program. The district has had SAL in the past, but a decline in participation meant it was put on the backburner. Mautone said the time was right to consider bringing it back again.

“We are requesting that program for this year because the student needs that we have calls for that program,” he said. “We’ll meet that need by reallocating our existing staff … It used to be that department chairs depending upon the number of core sections only taught three classes. In the new Saugerties Teachers’ Association contract that goes from three to four sections. Same number of staff members, one additional section that we can assign to a staff member.”

The district is also looking to operate its own summer school for grades 7-9, Mautone said. Grades 10 through 12 would still attended BOCES-run summer school.

“The last time we ran summer school was 2007 for budgetary reasons,” he said. “I anticipate we would need a principal, a secretary, a nurse, approximately nine teachers, and possibly one or two support staff. That would run from July 11th through approximately August 16th, and then the Regents exams are August 17th and 18th.”

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Turner said the spending plan is the result of considerable work by a great many people.

“We review each child’s needs that are going on in each building,” said Turner. “When we’re boiling it down to the budget conversation that we’re having, that’s ignoring that we’ve probably had a large number of hours and meetings with the administrative staff and asking them to go back and evaluate their needs within their buildings. They aren’t flippant. We’ve gone through all of these things. And, simultaneously, some of the other items that I bring forward to you, that it’s not just arbitrary. It’s been looked at, evaluated, and we’re trying to come up with a cohesive package when it’s all said and done.”

While administrators appear to be comfortable with all the moving parts as they assemble the 2016-17 budget, Jilek said a lack of communication from the state comptroller’s office is an indication that the district’s fiscal future is in good shape.

“You may not have heard about Saugerties and the comptroller’s opinion of where we stand financially,” she said. “That’s because we did not get the papers. Amen. We are in very good financial health.”