Like other local school districts during the Covid-19 pandemic, the Saugerties Central School District’s annual budget process thus far has been a combination of routine and the great unknown. During a virtual meeting of the Board of Education last week, Business Manager Jane St. Amour said that if the district continues to use its fund balance to offset the deficit between spending and income, cuts in programming or structural changes may be inevitable.
St. Amour listed among the unanticipated expenses during the past unprecedented year an increase in the heating bill, the result of following CDC guidelines to keep windows open during in-person instruction, even during the coldest days of winter.
Other expenditures included the purchase of Chromebooks for remote learning; unemployment costs, which the district expects to receive at least a partial credit for; a transfer to the school lunch fund; and the likelihood that the May budget vote will have to be conducted by mail rather than in-person. The School Board has yet to discuss the vote, but in addition to safety protocols, they will also have to factor in the expense.
“There’s a big price difference in that,” St, Amour said. “Last June, it was over $60,000 to have the mail-in absentee balloting as opposed to between $10,000 and $15,000 for regular in-person voting. So I’m still waiting to hear what what’s going to happen with that.”
But while there have been unanticipated expenses, the district has also seen savings as well, including receiving a “premium holiday” from an insurance company which allowed the SCSD to skip a monthly premium payment, resulting in a savings of around $950,000. There have been fewer substitutes over the past year than normal, and fewer hours for part-time staff, which has resulted in a savings for the district. And the cost of remote participation in conferences has been significantly less than what was originally budgeted for travel to conferences in person.
The district has also seen a decrease in enrollment, St. Amour said, which could yield savings in being able to reduce the number of class sections in some elementary school buildings from two to one in some grade levels.
The district has also received a boost in at least one revenue area, with a BOCES refund that was around $100,000 higher than anticipated. An increase in federal aid of roughly $520,000 helped offset anticipated state aid that was not received. And a decrease in state transportation aid of $240,000 is less impactful as the district didn’t have to use transportation as much.
“And along with that, we negotiated some of the transportation companies and the negotiation took a little bit longer which moved those last payments into this fiscal year,” said St. Amour.
At the moment, the district’s unassigned fund balance is expected to increase from $4,287,821 on June 30, 2020 to $7,723,986 this coming June 30, the end of the fiscal year.
“That’s about the only good thing to come out of this pandemic, that we have money in the unassigned fund balance,” St. Amour said.
But it won’t last. In discussing the district’s long-range finances, St. Amour said that a drop in total expenditures from $64,889,223 in 2020 to an estimated $63,725,467 for 2021 is due to the ways the pandemic is affecting in-person education. A return to full-time in-person instruction in the 2021-22 school year could drive expenditures up to an estimated $69,076,710. And while the district could have an estimated $5,333,847 fund balance to help offset a budget deficit, by the 2022-23 school year it would be roughly $1.4 million in the hole.
But there are still many unknowns, more so than usual at this time of year when the annual dance between the governor’s initial budget proposal and what the final spending plan looks like after the legislature has their say on state aid. St, Amour said that a “local district-funding adjustment” may wind up being reminiscent of the formula-based five-year Gap Elimination Adjustment enacted by Governor Andrew Cuomo for the 2010-11 fiscal year.
“This is just kind of the latest strategy to reduce state aid,” St. Amour said, adding that the governor is indicating that should the state receive an additional $9 billion in federal aid, roughly $3.5 billion in cuts to education could be avoided.
School Board President Robert Thomann said that some emergency state aid received by school districts is taking the place of regular aid.
“It looks like it’s to help offset some expenses we’ve got for the pandemic, like having to buy Chromebooks and having to buy supplies and so forth, but the metric is that it just really supplements the state aid that we should’ve gotten and it doesn’t really enhance that,” Thomann said. “It seems that the governor’s proposals continually hurt the school districts and we’re not really getting the aid we really need.”
The next meeting of the SCSD Board of Education is scheduled for Tuesday, March 9. A budget workshop is planned for Tuesday, March 16.