Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Spirit of giving, receiving and presenting (fiscal realities)

Although the temperatures hardly reflect it – being well above normal for early December – the holiday recess is fast approaching! It is the season of giving and once again our students, teachers and staff have stepped up to help make the holidays a little brighter for those in the community who are struggling.

Throughout the month of December, our Junior High Student Council is sponsoring its annual Adopt-an-Angel program for the Make-A-Wish Foundation, while the High School Student Council is collecting food for the local food bank. Teachers and staff from both buildings (WES, WJSHS) have purchased gifts for children of local families in need. In October and November, our teachers and staff donated winter coats and snow gear to be distributed to adults and children through the Coats for the Community program. In “Movember,” several high school teachers and a few students relinquished their razors to grow mustaches and other forms of facial hair – who knew mutton chops and sideburns had become popular again? – to raise money for the American Cancer Society. Thank you to our teachers, staff, students and parents for their kindness and their generosity this holiday season.

It is also the season for receiving, which is why I want to thank the Arsenal Business & Technology Partnership for again making our schools the beneficiary of the Partnership’s annual golf tournament. On Dec. 8, Arsenal Partnership President Peter Gannon presented our district a check for $10,000 that will help support extracurricular opportunities for our students. During the past three years, the Partnership has raised more than $50,000 for after-school programming and I am grateful for the continued support that Mr. Gannon and the Partnership has provided our students and our schools.

‘Tis the season for music

It was my honor and privilege to attend the annual Garnet & Grey Winter Concert performed by junior-senior high school student musicians on Dec. 9, and I look forward to the elementary school’s concert on Dec. 21, which will be performed in the WJSHS auditorium. I applaud Watervliet’s music teachers for sharing their passion and enthusiasm for music with our students every day, and our student musicians, as well, for their effort and dedication to learning the music and practicing the songs, and presenting memorable performances for family, friends, fellow students and staff.

One step forward, two back …

It’s no secret that during the past two years, Watervliet has been at the top or near the top of the list of most fiscally stressed school districts in New York, according to the Office of the State Comptroller. I am pleased to report that this year our fiscal stress rating has been downgraded from severe to moderate. As a result of serious belt tightening – essentially doing much more with less in recent years – we have been able to return a modest level of fiscal stability.

Also, thanks to the efforts of state legislators to increase state aid this year, our school district did not have to make any cuts to staffing or reduce educational programs for the first time in recent memory. But, in a textbook one step forward, two steps back scenario, I fear that we will again struggle with difficult decisions in balancing our budget under the confines of a no-growth tax levy.

That is because Watervliet, like many other school districts across the state, will grapple with the specter of a zero percent, or near zero percent, cap on the increase in property tax levy revenue as we develop our school budget for the 2016-17 school year.  

Some may ask how that can be when the state has a 2 percent tax cap law? The answer is complicated, but suffice to say, the so-called “2 percent tax cap” is not and has never been fixed at 2 percent. The state’s property tax levy limit or “tax cap” is based on a multi-step calculation that restricts the allowable levy growth factor to an increase of 2 percent or the change in the consumer price index — whichever is lower. Because the CPI has moved little in 2015, many districts will face a zero percent increase in local revenue, unless they attempt to exceed the cap, which would require the support of a supermajority (60%). Most school district leaders, up to now, have been reluctant to do that. (Watervliet has stayed within our allowable tax levy cap since the law was enacted.)  

Meanwhile, estimates suggest total school spending – to meet state mandates and contractual obligations – will increase by 2.7 percent. A no-growth tax levy, without a significant state aid increase, would be detrimental to schools and undermine legislators’ past efforts to support public education.

I will be sharing more information on this as our budget development process continues. Until then, please take time this season to enjoy the most precious gift of all—time spent with family and friends.

I wish everyone peace and joy this holiday season.