Kingston schools official: ‘We are going to balance this budget one way or another’

School officials in the Kingston City School District released preliminary 2020-21 budget figures last week, and while they cautioned that there are still plenty of unknowns, they may need to trim roughly $4.3 million from the $190 million proposal to get under the estimated 1.72 percent tax levy increase mandated by New York State.

In order to make the budget work as-is, the district would have to raise the local tax levy by 5.8 percent; the preliminary spending plan is around 5.1 percent higher than the adopted budget for the current 2019-20 school year. 

During a Feb. 5 budget presentation Deputy Superintendent for Human Resources and Business Allen Olsen said that around 98 percent of the budget increase is tied up in health insurance ($2.4 million), salaries ($2.3 million), BOCES ($2.5 million, including an increase of around $2 million for special education), transportation ($1.15 million) and teacher and employee retirement ($615,000). 

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While health insurance and special education costs have risen steadily over the past several years, transportation costs had plateaued before inching upwards recently.

“There’s a huge increase in transportation because we’re required to transport more students from further away,” said Superintendent Paul Padalino. According to school officials, new state regulations require the district to transport local special ed students or those displaced by homelessness as far as 50 miles; in some cases that means sending bus or van to pick up one child.

“This is a large increase in transportation vis-à-vis what we’ve seen in the last couple of years,” said Olsen. “There’s a lot going on in transportation, as you may know. There’s a lot of foster kids being transported, homeless kids being transported. There’s a lot of new routes that we’ve had to initiate and it’s going to cause some havoc in the transportation area. And the cost is simply going higher.”

Elsewhere, the budget is preliminary not only because district officials have more work to do, but also because they’re working in many cases with estimates. That includes state aid, which school officials estimate will come in at an increase of around 3.12 percent. That figure is partly based on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s budget proposal, which would see the district receive an increase of $2,125,608 over the 2019-20 total of $68,426,438. But no one believes the state aid will stay there.

“Just about nothing is as arcane as New York State education aid,” said Olsen. “We obviously haven’t heard the last from the legislature on state aid.”

Other figures also have yet to come into focus. “We have not heard anything solid from any of our healthcare providers,” Olsen said. “We’re estimating based on, I suppose, hearsay. There’s things we don’t know yet, and things we hope will turn our way. But that’s a pretty big gap. Obviously that’s a mismatch … and you’re not going to get to a balanced budget. And indeed we don’t have a balanced budget at this point.”

Going over a 1.72 percent tax levy increase would require the district to seek a supermajority of 60 percent or higher in order to pass the budget. But while the public has overwhelmingly supported most of the district’s spending proposals during the near-decade Padalino has been at the helm, the goal is still to steer clear of the need for a supermajority. And so, school officials will continue looking for ways to save while maintaining programs put in place over the past few years.

“We’re looking at everything, going through the entire budget,” said Padalino. “We’ll work around the edges to see if there are cuts we need to make. … We’re going to chip away at it, and we’ll be back in a couple of weeks.”

Beyond cuts locally, Padalino said he would like to see the state do a better job of funding mandates rather than requiring school districts to foot the bill. But while the district is working with numerous unknowns, school officials are confident they will be able to figure the spending plan out ahead of the budget vote on Tuesday, May 19.

“We are going to balance this budget one way or another,” said Olsen.

Also on the ballot on May 19 are three school board seats: Vice-President Priscilla Lowe, the Rev. James Childs, and Nora Scherer will see their current terms expire at the end of June and will have to seek re-election if they want to remain on the board.

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