JAMESTOWN – As the Jamestown School Board continues to review and discuss the estimated $85 million 2018-19 school budget, members are faced with the task of what to do with a multi-million surplus that will carry over from the current school year.
During Wednesday’s school board budget work session, Jamestown School Superintendent Bret Apthorpe and Finance Director Vern Connors presented the board with the latest information regarding the current year’s budget, as well as what options to consider for next year’s spending plan, which the board must finalize by the end of April.
The two administrators pointed out that the district is expected to finish the current school year with a $9.9 million in unassigned fund balance money. Under state law, the district can put up to $3.4 million of that money into a fund balance reserve for next year – which would equal 4 percent of its overall budget. The school board is then left with the decision on how to appropriate the remaining $6.5 million.
The school administration is recommending the school board apply $2.34 million into the district employee retirement reserve fund, to help address possible future financial challenges related to employee retirement contributions to New York State. Another $2 million was recommended to go toward overdue building repairs and infrastructure work that can’t wait until the next capitol project proposal, which is three years away. And another $2 million was suggested to be placed in a newly created Capitol Reserve Fund to cover local taxpayers’ share of future capital projects. If the board decided to go with that appropriation, a public referendum would have to take place to establish the new capitol reserve fund.
Apthorpe and Connors did not recommend that any of the money be applied toward a property tax reduction for next year. The concern from the school administration is that any decrease in property taxes would impact the district’s property tax cap formula in future years and limit future budget decisions. The school district has not had a tax increase since 2011.
The board will decide on how to appropriate that money at some point in April when it finalizes its 2018-19 budget plan.
WAITING FOR FINAL STATE FUNDING NUMBERS
Meanwhile, the school board continues to wait for the state to finish its budget so school officials know specifically how much state aid the district will be receiving. The state budget is expected to be passed on Thursday and officials re projecting it will cover about 78 percent of total revenue for the school year.
As school officials wait for the final budget numbers to come in, school administrators are recommending the addition of at least eight Full Time Equivalency (FTE) positions and 6 contingency FTE positions for the next year. Additional positions could be added, depending on how much additional state aid the district may receive.
School board member Nina Karbacka noted that she would like to see more of a focus on restoring teaching positions and program, which saw a drastic cuts during the past decade.
Apthorpe said that he and his staff are continuing to review and develop the district’s Success Academy plan and approach to improving student performance. As a result, he said it’s likely the board will act on even more staffing additions in the 2019-2020 school budget. He said the 2018-19 budget is really more about “getting out of survival mode and entering financial planning mode.”
With the surplus and better financial positioning for next year, both school board members Shelly Leathers and Patrick Slagle lobbied for a slight 1 percent decrease in next year’s tax levy, which is projected to be $14.6 million – the same as the current year.
“We’ve got the surplus and we’re looking at putting $2.3 million in [the employee retirement fund], so I’m just looking at distributing the surplus differently,” Slagle said. “Just brainstorming… but we can just put $2.1 million in there and then we have enough left over for a 1 percent tax get back.”
However, that suggestion didn’t appear to garner enough support from other board members, due to the concerns it would have on future tax cap formulas. Even though it’s doubtful a tax decrease is in the cards, all board members agree that there will be no tax increase for property owners for the eighth consecutive year.
“In the years it was difficult we made difficult decision and in the years things are going better I think we owe it to our students and our goals,” School Board President Paul Abbott said. “I think we should just keep it flat. I’m very committed to the idea that we don’t raise taxes in a year like this, when things are good. And in the years when things are bad, I’m still committed that we don’t raise taxes. Good times and bad, that has been this board’s position. We’re starting to see the positives from that approach and I think with the goals that Dr. Apthorpe has set, we should continue on that course.”
Apthrope and his staff will present their final budget recommendations next month, with the school board then working to finalize the plan so it can be put up for a public vote on Tuesday, May 15. A public hearing on the budget would take place on Tuesday, May 8.