The Saugerties school board last week adopted a nearly $64-million budget for the 2018-19 school year, a plan which school officials said was balanced in part by tapping into reserves. The spending plan comes with a 2.53 percent tax levy increase, the maximum possible without having to resort to approval from a supermajority of 60 percent or greater at the polls.
Trustees adopted the spending plan during a special meeting on Wednesday, April 18, eight days after they delayed the vote to allow for more time to review. Three part-time teaching positions set to be eliminated in the district’s original proposal were reinstated. The rest of the spending plan remained largely unchanged.
“I think it provides the needed services for students to get a quality education while it keeps us under the tax cap,” said school board president Robert Thomann. “I think it’s something that everyone can live with.” Spending in the proposed budget rose at roughly the same pace as the tax levy, a 2.534 percent increase, or $1,580,966 over the 2017-18 budget.
According to business manager Lissa Jilek, the budget plan was difficult to craft for a variety of reasons, including one of the lowest state-aid increases in Ulster County. “We only received $178,643 increase in state aid,” said Jilek in mid-April. “That was a net of 0.79 percent increase.”
“We have obviously struggled,” said Jilek. “We’ve struggled because of the limited amount of state aid, and we’ve struggled because of rising health insurance costs.”
Though trustees opted to retain the three part-time teachers, a retiring social-studies teacher will not be replaced at the end of the current school year. “We do have a balanced budget,” Jilek said. “We have balanced this budget by looking at those folks who are retiring and not replacing one position. We have had several other retirements, and we are replacing them, obviously, at a much lower cost, so we have savings there.”
While the cost of Ulster BOCES fell 5.3 percent overall to $5.3 million in the 2018-19 spending plan, the district’s share of administrative costs rose to $836,471, an increase of around $185,000. Jilek explained that the increase came from a court decision that required post-retirement benefits for BOCES to be shared by all participating districts.
In addition to savings from teachers who are retiring, the budget proposal includes a boost from an employee benefits reserve account. “That reserve exists specifically to pay those contractual benefits when folks retire,” Jilek explained. “We have $504,000 in that account, we’re going to decrease it by $75,000, and we’re going to apply that to our revenues. So that’s a good thing. We’re using it for its intended purpose.”
The district would also tap further into its fund balance than it did for the 2017-18 budget should the 2018-19 spending plan pass. “We have to apply more fund balance, so we’re going from $785,222, which was the applied fund balance in the current 17-18 budget, to a proposed amount of $1,150,804, which is a dollar increase of $365,582.”
Which leaves the local property tax levy. The district tax cap allows a 2.53 percent increase for the 2018-19 school year, an increase of $956,610 for a total levy of $38,728,466.
The 2018-19 budget proposal will go before district voters on Tuesday, May 15, along with the election of school board members. Thomann, vice-president James Mooney and trustee Mike Maclary are unopposed.
Thomann was unsure whether the lack of opposition might indicate the public’s confidence in the current board. “That would be speculation on my part,” he said. “I’m not sure what to make of it. It’s either that or nobody really wants to do it and they realize how much work it takes. It’s probably somewhere in between, you know?”
Thomann said he decided to run for reelection because he felt there was still work to be done. “I guess my goal eventually is to feel everything is okay and I don’t have to run,” he said. “But I was encouraged to run by fellow board members and family. I’m not satisfied with the graduation rate, both for regular ed kids and kids with disabilities. I’d like to see that improve a little bit more before I venture off the board.”
Would Thomann like to remain board president for the 2018-19 school year? “I think that’s up to the will of the board,” he answered. “It’s certainly a lot of additional work, and thank God I’m semi-retired so I can be there for some of that. If the board wants to look at someone else, feel free.”
The district will hold a special budget hearing on Tuesday, May 8, the same evening as its regular meeting.