Thursday, March 3, 2016

Pondering the school budget, outlining the fiscal challenges ahead

During the Board of Education meeting in February, a preliminary overview of the school budget was presented that outlined where we stand in the early stages of the budget development process. [View the presentation] New York State Assemblymember John McDonald took the time to stop by our meeting to share an update on state aid and the property tax levy cap with the school board and audience members. The good news is that Assemblyman McDonald is confident the Legislature will increase the amount of state aid to schools over that recommended in Governor Cuomo’s Executive budget when each chamber presents its own budget proposals this month.

However, Assemblyman McDonald pretty much guaranteed that neither the state Senate nor the Governor has the will or the inclination to yield an inch as far as the property tax levy cap is concerned. The cap limits the increase in the property tax levy to 2 percent annually or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower. For our school district and many others, the so-called 2 percent tax levy cap translates to a near-zero percent increase for the 2016-17 school year due to unusually slow growth in inflation throughout the 2015 fiscal year. School leaders and education advocates around the state have rallied for elected officials to tweak the tax cap formula by making the allowable levy growth factor a consistent 2 percent, regardless of the inflation rate. This would at least provide a level of predictability schools do not currently have. By all accounts, however, changes to the property tax cap do not appear likely anytime soon.

Of course, the governor contends the cap is not restrictive, saying schools have the option to override it. While that’s true, Watervliet and most other school districts have chosen to comply with the law since it was enacted in 2012. To challenge the cap, which is popular among the public and deemed by political pundits to be the governor’s “greatest achievement” is a gamble many school leaders are not comfortable risking. To exceed the cap, districts must secure a 60 percent majority vote by the public. In Watervliet’s case, the gamble is not worth it, as every 1 percent on the levy equals approximately $67,000, enough to cover the salary and benefits of perhaps one teacher, but certainly not enough to close a sizeable budget gap and risk alienating the community’s good will in the process.  

Fiscal recovery underway, but for how long?

You may recall in 2013, the Office of the State Comptroller (OSC) branded Watervliet the most fiscally stressed school district in the state. Although we no longer topped the list in 2014, the district’s fiscal stress score remained high. Our most recent score, released by the OSC in January, indicates the district now has moderate fiscal stress, an improvement that demonstrates our resiliency. Yet, between the near-zero tax levy cap and the dismal 1.35 percent increase in state aid, our district’s fiscal recovery could stall. [View NYS Comptroller's Fiscal Stress Report]

Balancing our budgets and paving a path to fiscal recovery has not been easy. It has required many difficult choices over the past several years including workforce reductions totaling 24 full-time staffers, ranging from administrators and teachers to instructional and clerical support staff; eliminating summer school programs and extracurricular opportunities; and consolidating junior varsity and modified teams, while eliminating athletic programs with below average participation. We also discontinued Advanced Placement courses at the high school and reduced enrollment in BOCES programs.  

This current school year, we have taken careful steps toward rebuilding opportunities for students after the state restored a considerable amount of Gap Elimination Adjustment (GEA) funding that was owed our district. I am thankful that the end of the GEA is finally in sight, but it is long overdue. School leaders have repeatedly called for the GEA’s end because of the significant loss of educational programs and services for students that have transpired since its inception.

Applauding our supporters

During the past two years, Assemblyman McDonald has secured additional aid – known as bullet aid – that has helped our district significantly. He continues to be an ally for our schools and the Watervliet community, and I thank him for being an advocate for public education.

The Arsenal Business & Technology Partnership also continues to support our students by gifting the proceeds from its annual golf outing to the district. We have been able to restore many extracurricular opportunities during the past three years thanks to Peter Gannon and the Arsenal Partnership’s generosity. This year, through a generous donation by Mohawk Honda to our Athletic Department, we were able to reinstate some of the modified sports that had been cut to save costs. Thanks to Nick Bonarrigo and everyone at Mohawk Honda for supporting Watervliet’s student athletes!

What’s next?

As I work with the school board, the school business manager and my administrative team to develop next year’s budget, I remain cautiously optimistic that our district will receive a much-needed jolt in aid. If not, we could face the unacceptable prospect of again having to make untenable decisions that place our students at a competitive disadvantage as they strive to become college and career ready.

I invite parents, staff, students and community members to be engaged in the budget development process by attending budget presentations on the following dates:

  • Tuesday, March 8, 6:30 p.m., WES PTA meeting,  Watervliet Elementary School cafeteria
  • Thursday, March 17, 6 p.m., prior to the regular Board of Education meeting, Watervliet Jr./Sr. High School
  • Saturday, April 9, 9 a.m., budget breakfast, Watervliet Jr./Sr. High School

I would also encourage you to stay informed by visiting the budget section of the district’s website and connecting with us on social media (Facebook and Twitter). And finally, please be sure to cast your ballot during the annual school budget vote and Board of Education election on Tuesday, May 17 from noon to 9 p.m.