At the recent regular meeting of the Highland Central School District on Tuesday, March 19, the Board of Education continued the process of developing a budget for the 2019-2020 school year. According to district business manager Lissa Jilek, the budget cannot be finalized for the board to adopt until the state releases its budget with the final numbers on education aid.
The New York State fiscal year begins on April 1. But Jilek said she would be surprised if Governor Cuomo delivers an on-time budget this year, because of disagreements in Albany over key details of the spending plan. “Coupled with that,” she added, “President Trump presented his federal budget with significant cuts to education. And how that will directly affect Highland and our federal grants is too early to tell.”
The state relies heavily on federal funds to fund education. In addition, said Jilek, New York State has not met the federal expectations this year for the “Every Student Succeeds Act” (ESSA), which requires states to fulfill specific criteria in order to receive certain monies. According to Jilek, New York State has fallen short in the area of special education. “So for now, we’ll have to sit tight with our current estimate of state aid and pay close attention to what’s happening at the federal level.”
Jilek also has concerns about the $1,500,000 from the appropriated fund balance applied to the revenue side of the proposed budget, a strategy that has been used for previous years’ budgets, as well. “That’s a lot of money for a small district to apply,” noted Jilek. “We certainly need it right now, but my goal for long-term planning is to get that number down.”
Bottom-line revenues for the 2019-20 school year currently stand at $44,397,585. “That’s a pretty good number,” Jilek said. The greatest difference between the existing budget and the proposed budget comes in the area of debt service, she noted. The district is losing revenue this year due to less building aid, but that figure is somewhat balanced out by debt that came off the books this year. “Unfortunately, however, there are increases in other [budget] lines.”
Jilek pointed out to the board that expenditures in the area of general support, which includes the board of education, finance, operations and maintenance, legal, property liability and casualty insurance, are slightly lower for the proposed budget than in the existing budget, creating a difference of $242,000 less in expenditures this year. But the costs of instruction, athletics, the library and computer science create an increase of $635,000 on the proposed budget.
Pupil transportation also shows a slight increase in costs, which Jilek says can be dealt with by “reconfiguring how we budget for our clerical personnel in the three schools who deal with transportation on a daily basis. Part of their salary can be allocated to pupil transportation, and then we see the aid. I’m working with the principals [to determine] what percent of time those folks spend with transportation. This has yet to be defined.”
With a proposed budget of $44,807,610 and revenue of $44,397,585, the shortfall is $410,025. “That’s the difference I need to hone down within the next month before the board accepts the budget,” said Jilek. “Hopefully the district receives more state aid, and I’m continuing to review the expenditures in general support, instruction and transportation.”
The board will continue the budget discussion at the Tuesday, April 2 board meeting, held in room E-32 at the high school, as usual, at 7 p.m. Once the governor releases the state budget, the board will have options on what they would like to adjust, said Jilek, noting that the board has until April 24 to adopt a budget.
Bus proposition of $450,246 to be put before voters
The Highland Board of Education passed a resolution at the March 19 meeting to put a $450,246 proposition before voters to allow the purchase of three 30-passenger buses, two seven-passenger Suburban vans and two wheelchair buses, inclusive of all safety and communications equipment. At the previous board meeting, the recommendation had been for the purchase of one wheelchair-accessible bus, but upon review, the board committee deemed it prudent to add another. State transportation aid will reimburse the district for 60 percent of the amount, amortized over five years.
The district currently has 46 vehicles in the fleet: six seven-passenger Suburbans, two wheelchair-accessible buses, eleven 30-passenger vehicles and 27 65-passenger buses, which are replaced on an approximately ten-year cycle.
One of the current wheelchair-accessible buses needs to be replaced for safety issues. Two wheelchair buses are advised in case something should happen to one of the vehicles or one is taken out of service to be inspected by the DOT.
One of the Suburbans to be purchased will replace an existing vehicle that has 173,000 miles on it and is 12 years old and at the end of its useful life. One of the district 30-passenger buses had to be outsourced recently due to engine failure and the other two are needed in order to have enough spares for when the other buses are out for inspection. The 30-passenger vehicles may also be used to transport sports teams when there are too many students to transport in a Suburban.
Voting hours will remain at 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. despite some pressure to move start time
The public vote on the budget and bus proposition, along with the election of two trustees, will be on Tuesday, May 21. According to Highland Superintendent of Schools Thomas Bongiovi, the district will have two voting machines in place despite issues with the Ulster County Board of Elections, who initially weren’t going to let schools use their voting machines. “Until a week ago, districts were scrambling as to what they were going to do,” Bongiovi said. “The Board of Elections wanted to force districts to close schools on any day there is voting, which is very hard for districts to do. The Board didn’t want voters going through the schools to vote, but here in Highland we have a separate entrance for voters, and they can go in and out and it doesn’t interfere with the students.”
With the prospect of paper ballots on the horizon, Bongiovi gave credit to district clerk Lisa Cerniglia for negotiating the two machines that will be available for the vote. The district will maintain its current voter hours of 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., despite the difficulties involved with the early start. The “keymaster” provided by the Board of Elections, who sets up the machines, has to arrive by 5 a.m. for the task, as does the custodian to let that person in. With few people choosing to vote as early as 6 a.m., next year may see the beginning of voting hours bumped forward an hour to 7 a.m., but that is a matter to be left for discussion at a future date with ample time to notify the community, said Board of Education president Alan Barone.
For more information, visit the district website at https://www.highland-k12.org.