Friday, February 24, 2017

No longer on the list, thankfully

I am really pleased to report that last month when NYS Comptroller Tom DiNapoli released his annual report of fiscally stressed school districts, Watervliet was conspicuously absent from the list.

I posted a blog in February 2014 when our district sat atop the comptroller's list of most fiscally stressed schools in New York State. I remember at the time making a prediction when speaking with news reporters that as a district, we would work diligently to get off the list as quickly as possible. Three years later, following some significant belt tightening, I am proud to say that we have turned the corner. It did not happen overnight, nor did it happen without painful cuts to staffing and programs. The slide below recaps the reductions made in prior years that have helped get us back on track fiscally.

image of budget presentation slide listing program and staffing cuts

In addition to those cost-cutting measures, we came in under budget on some capital project expenditures as well as transportation and special education tuition costs, and realized savings from unexpected retirements and resignations over the past two years. All of this has allowed us to rebuild the district’s depleted fund balance, a factor cited in the comptroller’s report as contributing to our fiscal stress.

With a healthier fiscal outlook this current school year, we were able to restore some of the programs and staffing that had been eliminated to balance prior-year budgets. In June 2016, our district received more good news: We were awarded a five-year grant to provide after-school academic support and enrichment opportunities for grades 3-8 students and offer a morning reading and math club for students in kindergarten through grade 2 to reinforce learning before the start of the regular school day.

Still, where school finances are involved, we recognize that it is important to remain cautious, especially in these uncertain times at the federal level. With the new administration in Washington, it is unclear what will happen with federal education funding to public schools. From every indication, Betsy DeVos, the new U.S. Department of Education Secretary, is partial to charter schools and has unfavorable views toward the public school system. As a lifelong public school educator, and now district leader, I wholeheartedly believe in the power of a free public education to move everyone forward, no matter who they are or where they come from. Unlike charter schools that are free from many of the regulations imposed on public schools and can be selective about who they teach, we in public education welcome all children and provide opportunities for every child who enters our buildings.

Looking ahead to the 2017-18 school year, we will develop a budget that is fiscally conservative in an effort to sustain the financial stability we have worked so hard to achieve. This will not be the easiest task, because as I have said many times, ours is not a spending issue but a revenue problem because of our heavy reliance on state aid and a property tax levy cap that limits our ability to raise much in the way of local funding.

If you are interested in taking part in the process, I invite you to join us for upcoming budget discussions on Tuesday, March 14 at the Watervliet Elementary School’s PTA meeting at 6:30 p.m., and then on Saturday, April 8 at 9 a.m. for our annual Budget Breakfast at Watervliet Jr./Sr. High School.

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