The Saugerties school board this week declined to adopt the latest draft budget for the 2019-20 school year, postponing the decision until its next meeting to ensure trustees have as much information as possible. The $65.2- million budget draft faces a shortfall of around $300,000.
The board’s decision to hold off on adopting the budget was based in part on recommendations for staff reduction by attrition suggested by business manager Donald Gottlieb.
“The board was concerned about the cuts and didn’t feel they had enough information, so we tabled the budget until the April 24 meeting to get some additional information and hopefully get the administration to work some of the strategies they’ve outlined,” school board president Robert Thomann said.
Trustees approved a retirement incentive which would provide eligible staff a one-time payment to retire now. Those positions could either be left vacant or filled by new hires at lower salaries.
It was unclear how many teachers might take advantage of the retirement incentive. “We want to allow some time to see if people are taking them to see if there’s any additional cost savings,” said Thomann.
Would the incentive be enough to make up the entire budget gap? “I think it will help, but it’s hard to predict,” he replied. “You can’t force somebody to retire. We know who’s eligible to retire, but we don’t know who’s going to take advantage of that. And it’s really not our place. It’s up to them to approach the administration to find out more about the incentive and see if it meets their needs.”
A balanced budget which falls below the district’s tax cap needs only a simple majority. A budget seeking a greater tax-levy increase than prescribed by the state, in this case 1.78 percent, needs the approval of a supermajority or 60 percent or greater. The district has been successful with its spending plans in recent years, but would rather not rely on a supermajority.
School officials had hoped for a sizable increase in state aid, but instead received a modest upward bump of around $60,000.
“The only challenge was waiting on the state aid numbers and then not getting as much money in state aid as we were hoping for,” said interim superintendent Lawrence Mautone. “We were optimistically hoping for a significant boost in aid. However, what was approved was extremely disappointing.”
The budget has been crafted during a period of administrative flux. Superintendent Seth Turner and business manager Lissa Jilek, who created the 2018-19 spending plan, have since left the district. Mautone, the district’s full-time deputy superintendent, has served as interim superintendent since Turner left in September, while Donald Gottlieb has taken on the role of interim business manager from Warren Donohue, who briefly served in an interim capacity after Jilek’s departure. Kingston High School principal Kirk Reinhardt, recently hired as the district’s full-time superintendent, doesn’t officially take the position until July 1.
Mautone said the administrative personnel changes didn’t adversely impact the budgeting process. “I do not think we had any different challenges than normal,” he said. “There was a seamless transition between our two interim business officials. Both have a lot of experience creating budgets. Dr. Gottlieb, who took over at the end of December, has been in our district many times in the past, and is familiar with us and the business office.”
Over the next two weeks, Mautone said, school officials will look to find ways of balancing the spending plan before the district adopts it. “We are still in the process of developing the budget,” he explained. “We are still trying to close a gap. I will be working with the administration to look at student enrollment, class sizes and course offerings. If reductions are done, we will try to make reductions that will have little or no impact on student program.”
The voters of the district overwhelmingly approved the 2018-19 budget by a vote of 663-345. The weather was believed to play a role in the relatively poor voter turnout, as rain lashed the region and cause power outages. The 2017-18 budget, which saw 1600 votes cast, passed 1104 to 496. In 2016, 1578 people voted, and the spending plan passed 1082-496.
The Ulster County Board of Elections reduced the number of voting machines Saugerties will use for its May 21 vote to four. While some other local school districts are reducing voting hours to accommodate the reduction in polling places and voting booths, school officials in Saugerties decided to keep both its locations and the hours of 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.