Kingston school district officials last week said that they were hoping to trim a further $2.6 million from their nearly $182-million draft budget for the 2019-20 school year. They stopped short of calling the budgetary situation a crisis.
“I’m not a ‘the sky is falling’ kind of person,” said superintendent Paul Padalino at the March 6 school board meeting. “The sky isn’t falling. We’re early in the process. We’re still working on it. This is a tough budget year, I’m not going to say that it’s not. But we’re not in panic mode at this point. We’re going to figure it out.”
The first draft of the spending plan totals $181,880,070, an increase of 3.91 percent over the 2018-19 budget. The tax-levy hike of 3.98 percent would be significantly above the state-mandated tax cap of 1.45 percent. School districts can seek a higher tax levy than prescribed by the cap, but that budget would have to receive approval by a supermajority of at least 60 percent of voters. Should they get the plan down to a tax levy of 1.45 percent or lower, a simple majority would suffice.
“We are working hard to find what we can do differently, where we can find efficiencies,” said Padalino. “We’re hoping for some more revenue and different ways of doing things so we can make up that gap. It’s a little bit of a struggle, but we’ve been in similar situations before. But this is a little deeper than what we expected.”
Still, Padalino stressed, all the numbers aren’t in yet, including the cost of employee health insurance.
“We’ve kind of got some early information of what we think the rate might be, but we need to get that confirmed and then plug it into our calculations,” Padalino said.
School officials said they believed insurance costs could rise between six and twelve percent.
Costs related to programs for students with disabilities are expected to increase by 8.09 percent to $38,637,766. Special and alternative education costs are partly covered by an increase in Boces expenses, which could rise by $3,270,000. Special and alternative education costs come to around $2,280,000 of the increase.
“This is a trend every year, but it’s a little higher this year than usual,” Padalino said. “We’re finding students with more needs, more intense needs. And finding other ways to work with them sometimes involves programs that we don’t have here in the Kingston city school district, so it includes intensive work here in the Kingston city school district that drives that cost up.”
Real estate sales will help
School officials are already planning to use $2 million of appropriated fund balance to offset the tax levy. The sale of real estate could also bring some relief, with revenue from the sales of both the Cioni building and the former Zena Elementary School likely to be spread out over a decade so as to avoid an issue with the tax cap.
There is also the possibility that the district’s expected state aid — an increase of just $800,000 in governor Andrew Cuomo’s 2019 spending proposal — could rise before the state budget is passed. The state legislature practically always increases the governor’s number.
Padalino said he expected that would happen by the April 1 deadline. “Most of the time I would say that when the Assembly and the Senate get a hold of it, that [aid] would go up,” Padalino said. “But very strategically we learned that there is a significant deficit in the collection of taxes in the state of New York, which may impact how [lawmakers] look at the budget. We’ll know more about that in April. Hopefully they’ll figure it out and put some more money into education, but we’ll have to see.”
The pie is the pie
Meanwhile, the district is reviewing its draft budget to look for savings. “If we have to make any cuts, our first look is always as far away from the classroom as possible,” Padalino said. “Right now it’s a line-by-line thing.”
While the situation could improve before the district ratifies its budget ahead of the vote on Tuesday, May 21, school officials are proceeding as though it won’t. “The pie is the pie,” said Padalino. “We just have to figure out how to cut it differently.”
The school board will hold a special budget-specific meeting on Wednesday, April 3, followed by a budget hearing on Wednesday, May 8. Both meetings will take place at the now-sold Cioni building on Crown Street.