State comes through on school aid for Saugerties, but retirement costs could increase on horizon

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

The Saugerties Central School District received some good news over the weekend as Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state lawmakers agreed on a $153 billion budget that includes $1.1 billion in new educational spending. That’s a relief for districts all across the state, including Saugerties, where the Board of Education will vote on adopting a $61.8 million spending plan for 2017-18 next year.

We spoke with district business manager Lissa Jilek twice over a six-day period, conversations that sandwiched the state budget news. The first part of that discussion touched on what at the time seemed like the very real possibility that school districts like Saugerties would present their budget proposals next month without the state budget having been settled. The second part of that discussion, which took place on Tuesday, April 11, came after school officials learned that legislative increases over Cuomo’s original proposal helped them overcome a budget shortfall.

“Right now we have a balanced budget, which is a wonderful, wonderful thing,” said Jilek. “I’m glad the legislature went in and took care of foundation aid. It’s not as much as we had anticipated; it’s much better than what was in the executive proposal in January. We’re happy.”

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When the state budget was settled late last Friday, the SCSD found its estimated aid set at $22,701,466, an increase of $861,310 over last year, and perhaps more importantly, an increase that’s nearly $400,000 more than the governor originally proposed. That’s especially good news for a district that saw its employee health insurance rise by around 15.9 percent, an increase of around $1.5 million.

At present, the district’s draft budget remains the same as it did a week ago: spending will increase by around 2.19 percent, and the tax levy increase will come in at the state cap, 1.56 percent, thus allowing the district to gain public approval by a simple majority. Exceeding the state-directed cap would require a super majority of 60 percent. The only notable change in the past week other than overcoming the distance between revenues and expenditures, Jilek said, was a plan to increase the unappropriated fund balance (aka rainy day fund) by $335,000.

Jilek described the health insurance increase as an anomaly for a district that in recent years has worked with its various bargaining units on equitable health care solutions during its most recent contract negotiations.

“The district has all contracts settled,” she said. “However, when we were negotiating with the teachers a year ago, we introduced a new health insurance option. The teachers had the option to go that way. If they did, they were given an additional 0.5 on their salary increase. That was extremely successful, and with that the district saved around $440,000. That was just with that one bargaining unit.”

A similar deal was struck with the district’s administrators.

“Of course there’s only a dozen of those compared to 240 teachers,” Jilek said. “The district is very happy with that, and we would like to introduce that solution to the other units. It’s just the timing. Timing is everything. If we hadn’t introduced that, we would have seen around a $475,000-$500,000 increase. So we saved money.”

Jilek said the spike in costs this year were the result of a number of factors, including an increase in serious health issues, an aging employee population, and ongoing but as yet unsettled negotiations between Dutchess Educational Health Insurance Consortium, which uses Empire BlueCross/BlueShield as its insurance, and Kingston hospitals run by HealthAlliance of the Hudson Valley.

Overall, employee benefits take up more than a quarter of the budget proposal, at around $17 million, an increase of 5.6 percent. Included in employee benefits are health insurance, worker’s compensation, social security, and teacher and employee retirement. Decreases in retirement costs helped absorb some of the shock of health insurance spikes, but Jilek said it can’t last forever.

“New York State teachers’ retirement and New York State employees’ retirement had significant rate decreases, which helped tremendously,” she said. “But we know there are some politics involved in that…I am concerned where the rates are going to go in the future, because I think they have been significantly understated, and I think we’re going to have a spike in retirement costs.”

Regular teaching costs represent largest portion of the spending plan, at $17.3 million, a bump of roughly one percent. That figure includes salaries, BOCES costs, contractual materials and supplies.

Elsewhere in the spending plan, $9.4 million is set aside for programs for students with disabilities, an increase of 0.3 percent; $3.8 million for transportation, up 4.6 percent; and $2.5 million in debt payments, up 0.1 percent.

The next meeting of the Board of Education is scheduled for Tuesday, April 19, during which trustees are expected to set the 2017-18 budget for public vote. Voting on BOCES budget and board members will also take place during the meeting, along with a pair of separate propositions.

Residents in the SCSD will vote on the 2017-18 budget on Tuesday, May 16.

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