Uncertainty clouds school budgets; tax hikes projected as minimal

By Julia Green
Area school superintendents are wrestling with declining state aid as they attempt to prepare their 2009-2010 annual budgets.
In spite of waning funds, however, superintendents at Andes, Margaretville and Roxbury central schools have prepared budget drafts that have only minor tax levy increases and will therefore have minimal impacts on local taxpayers.

Margaretville Central School
“Right now we’re not counting on any stimulus money until that becomes a reality,” said Margaretville Central School Superintendent Tony Albanese. “Overall, our numbers are down.”
The proposed budget for Margaretville Central School shows a decrease of $137,000 from last year’s budget, not including any stimulus funding.
In a presentation to the MCS Board of Education, Albanese identified the two primary guiding principles as whether or not decisions the school is making are in the best interest of the students and whether or not the outcomes of those decisions are in the best interest of the students, parents and community.
The school presented a budget that would carry a 1.9 percent tax increase to the board earlier this month.
“We’re trying to keep the tax levy under two percent,” Albanese said, adding that it could decrease depending on the outcome of state aid. One percent on the tax levy is equivalent to approximately $60,000.
Margaretville, like other area schools, is feeling the effect of reduced state aid; the Deficit Reduction Assessment calls for a loss of $219,403 in aid for MCS – a decrease of 7.8 percent from last year. Nearly 31 percent of Margaretville’s budget is based on state aid.
“The deficit reduction did affect us, obviously, as it affected all of the schools in New York State,” Albanese said. “Our allocation was $219,403,” he added, which amounts to approximately eight percent. Statewide deficits of state aid funding ran the gamut from three percent in schools deemed poorer to 13 percent in schools considered to fall on the more wealthy end of the spectrum. Margaretville, Albanese said, was considered to be “property rich,” resulting in the eight percent figure.
“Freezing foundation aid is a loss to districts,” he said. “It was projected over a number of years, and it being frozen really stops that flow of money.”
The Margaretville Central School budget for the 2008-09 school year allocated $7,778,367 (72 percent of its total budget) for program-related costs, $1,975,112 (19 percent) for capital, and $919,559 (9 percent) for administrative spending.
If approved, the 2009-10 budget would allocate $7,699,586 (73 percent) for programs, $1,915,282 (18 percent) for capital, and $921,210 (nine percent) for administrative.
Albanese highlighted the fact that Margaretville was able to avoid any major cuts to one area or line item and was also able to avoid any decrease in personnel.
“Our goal was to go budget to budget and keep things as neutral as possible,” he said. “We didn’t target any one area; we felt we were able to take care of things across the board instead of hitting any one area.”
Despite the challenges presented by the economy and the governor’s budget cuts, Albanese said Margaretville has also been able to avoid imposing an overall spending freeze.
“We’ve used a lot of cautiousness and haven’t frozen things,” he said. “In November, we met with the faculty and supervisors and we said we had to be very cautious in spending this year, which is why I think we’re in pretty good shape. The faculty and staff have been very supportive in trying to be helpful.”
The proposed budget will go to the board for a vote on April 27.
“My hope is that the community will see that this is a good budget for the kids, and that the focus is on the kids,” Albanese said.
More information about the proposed Margaretville Central School budget, including recommendations to strengthen the educational program through personnel, curriculum and technology modifications, visit the MCS Web site at www.margaretville cs.org.

Roxbury Central School
Roxbury Central School will hold the second of three public budget review hearings tonight at 7 p.m. in the school’s library. In a mailing sent at the start of the month, Roxbury residents were invited to attend the public hearings and to vote on the school budget on May 19.
“Our budget increase is at .68% right now and .59% on the levy,” said Roxbury Superintendent Tom O’Brien. “One of the things that we’ve had to do here is to forecast based on all the preliminary numbers that came from the governor’s executive budget. The greatest challenge we have now is that we’re dealing with a good number of unknowns.”
Per the governor’s executive proposal, state aid to Roxbury Central School has declined by $232,000 from last year.
O’Brien added that the RCS Board of Education had met and agreed with the notion that one of the best ways to help the community, given the current economic climate nationwide, is not to encumber members of the community with more taxes.
“We hear of a certain amount of money coming back to us, but we have nothing concrete,” he said.
A host of external factors will impact the school budget, including: a multi-year funding problem resulting from the anticipated duration of state and national recovery efforts; lower non-tax revenue sources; an increase in required pension contributions to offset losses realized in the stock market; and a four percent budget contingency rate for 2009-2010 that will significantly decrease in coming years with a drop in the consumer price index.
Internal factors will also come into play, including: an ongoing request for funding of a capital reserve fund to replace an ailing flat roof; a gradual decrease in enrollment; and a spending freeze imposed Feb. 1.
One potentially negative impact of budget woes that has already been mitigated is the possibility of layoffs; O’Brien said that Roxbury Central School will not be obliged to make any job cuts, due in large part to a reduction in staff through attrition and the realignment of present staffing.
The third public budget review hearing will be held Wednesday, April 8 at 7 p.m. in the RCS library, and the annual budget hearing will be held Tuesday, May 5 in the RCS cafetorium.
Registered voters in Roxbury may participate in the budget vote on Tuesday, May 19. Those who wish to register to vote in the budget vote may do so between 4 and 8 p.m. on Wednesday, May 6 at the Grand Gorge Civic Center and on Thursday, May 7 at Roxbury Central School.

Andes Central School
“We’re very close to being finished with this process,” said Andes Superintendent John Bernhardt on Monday of his school’s budget deliberations. “The version the board has now could be the version that the board approves.”
After a meeting on Thursday, Bernhardt said that the board was almost ready to approve the budget, but that he urged them to exercise caution in doing so, and to review it again prior to the end of the month, when interviews will be conducted with candidates to succeed Bernhardt as superintendent.
“We’re very close to having a budget to present to our voters,” Bernhardt said.
The board will hold a public meeting to explain and discuss the budget at 7 p.m. on May 7 in the distance learning room at Andes.
Bernhardt said the school was charged with trying to come up with a budget that would limit a taxpayer increase to three percent.
“At this time, we have a budget that has a projected taxpayer increase of 2.97 percent, and that spending plan is actually a reduction from last year, so our budget is 1.47 percent smaller.”
Andes’ budget last year was $3,627,048; this year’s stands at 3,573,609, representing a decrease of $53,439.
“That’s important to note because last year’s taxpayer increase was 3.17 percent, but we had budget increase expenditures of 5.75 percent, so you can kind of see how we had a far greater challenge this year than last to be able to bring a budget with that tax cut.”
Bernhardt added that a major factor contributing to that difficulty is the one-time deficit reduction of $78,651.
“In reality, our state aid has been reduced by that amount, so the only way you can make up for that is by cutting programs or increasing your tax burden. That’s the only way you can make up for deductions in state aid.”
An upside, however, is that Andes was able to meet its budgetary goals without incurring any cuts in personnel as a result of the financial crunch.
“We were exceedingly happy that this budget does not show a reduction of personnel,” Bernhardt said.
Also helping in the budget process are the savings that resulted from the fluctuation in oil prices; while last year schools suffered as a result of exploding energy costs, the budgets that resulted when such rates were factored in left schools in a very different place.
“We were able to make substantial savings with diesel fuel, unleaded gas and heating fuel,” Bernhardt said. “That’s a big swing when you’re talking about 28,000 gallons of heating fuel.”
He added that teachers, who were asked to carefully inventory what they have and be as frugal as possible in making spending requests for the coming year, generated significant reductions by doing so, as evidenced by a reduction of over 35 percent in materials and supplies.
The program budget at Andes Central School, which comprises the teaching and learning aspects, was decreased by 3.34 percent, which represented a savings of $95,905. Equipment spending was cut, textbook spending decreased by over 37 percent, and BOCES spending was cut by over 20 percent. All tolled, the total budget deficit at Andes was estimated to be $53,000.
And, Bernhardt said, unlike some area schools, Andes has managed to avoid an overall spending freeze.
“We’ve attempted to be very, very careful in making spending decisions, but we did not outright freeze,” he said. “I have a very different opinion on that. Being a very small school, I think it’s critically important that we have field trips and expose our youngsters to unique experiences, other individuals, other settings, so I was doing everything I could not to totally freeze our budget and we have been carefully deliberating on our expenditures.”
One noticeable increase exists in the administrative area of the budget, which Bernhardt said is mostly to do with the relocation of a single $30,000 line item from the program budget to the administrative budget. That $30,000 represents the cost of the T1 line that was put into the building to provide Internet access and to support the school’s technology mainframe. The other contributing factor to the increased administrative budget is the fact that the salary line item for the new superintendent, Bernhardt will retire at the end of this school year, was budgeted to be at the top of the salary range in order to give the board flexibility when it came time for negotiations for a successful candidate.