State financial problems pose uncertainty for Kingston school officials

Kingston school officials have begun work on the 2020-21 district budget. Though they won’t be ready to reveal the preliminary figures for a few weeks, there are already areas of concern. 

Governor Andrew Cuomo has just addressed the $6-billion shortfall in the state budget, and there are consequences for public education. The governor recently prioritized reforming education finance to ensure poorer school districts receive more funding. How would this affect other school districts?

The proposed budget put forth by the governor this Tuesday proposed a new funding formula “to build up underserved districts.” The proposed state budget will increase overall education spending by $826 million, but 85 percent of the increase in basic aid will go to these highest-needs districts.

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The state legislature practically always provides additional school funding to whatever the governor proposes. It may also change the aid formula.

During a school board meeting January 8, Allen Olsen, deputy superintendent for human resources and business, said that the Kingston district was keeping a close watch. “Many of you know that school aid and Medicaid are the two largest items in the budget,” Olsen said. “That doesn’t mean that they’re in danger, but it means that they might be in danger … We’re hopeful that we’ll get some more money there, but the six billion dollars is worrisome.”

The district’s current budget for the 2019-20 school year totals $180.8 mllion, an increase of 3.30 percent over the previous year. There was a 1.45 percent tax-levy increase. The district has not attempted to exceed the state tax-levy limit. Some 73 percent of voters approved the spending plan last May. 

The allowable tax-levy limit is set annually by the state on a district-by-district basis. Districts are allowed to increase the local levy beyond the state limit, but are required to get approval from a supermajority of 60 percent of the voters to do so.

The 2020-21 limit is only now coming into focus. “We’ve done some preliminary work on the tax-levy limit,” said Olsen. “It looks like it might well be a bit under two percent. We figure it is going to be somewhere between 1.7 and … maybe 2.1 percent.” Each percentage point in the levy is roughly the equivalent of a million dollars. 

“It just gives you a sense of what we have not levied to protect taxpayers and still be able to move forward,” Olsen said. 

Olsen gave assurances that the district will continue its practice of looking into alternative funding opportunities. “We’ve been really fortunate,” Olsen said. “We’ve gotten some very good grants in recent years, and this year. Hopefully that will continue to help us.”

Bethany Woodard, the district’s treasurer and tax collector, said that school officials are getting a greater sense of how other expenses will impact the spending plan. “For example, our debt service payments, we know what our down payments are and what our debt service schedules are,” Woodard said. “And we now have contracts with most of our bargaining units, so we’re able to estimate our salary information for next year pretty well.”

OIsen cautioned that other potentially significant expenses have yet to be determined. “We don’t know what our health insurance increases are going to be yet,” he said. They’re estimated to rise around $3 million. “We don’t know exactly what the retirement system increase is going to be, either.”

Under new state-mandated guidelines, the district will prepare transparency reports that show per-pupil expenditures for each school in its budgeting process. The district will also have to provide that information for the 2019-20 school year. 

“It will allow for local decision-making to be more effective,” said Olsen. 

But some trustees worried that a lack of clarity in the spending comparisons could lead to confusion. “My suspicion is that if someone comes in and asks why Chambers is getting more than Crosby, let’s say, it is going to be a very difficult proposition to reconcile those numbers,” said board president James Shaughnessy. “It’s going to be very difficult to calculate, and it’s going to be very difficult for people asking the questions to understand, I think. People have enough problems reconciling their checkbooks.”

Preliminary budget figures are expected at a meeting of the school board on Wednesday, February 5.

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