JAMESTOWN – Jamestown school officials have started the process of identifying what needs to be done to close a multimillion dollar budget gap.
The Jamestown School Board held a two-hour work session on Wednesday to determine which programs could be reduced or eliminated, as well as which were off limits for next school year.
On March 12 the school board learned from Superintendent Tim Mains that the district is currently facing a $4.9 million budget gap. That spending gap does not take into account an increase in state aid the district will likely receive from Albany and state officials have not given any details on how much Jamestown will likely receive. So until state lawmakers settle on a budget, the district is forced to work with this year’s state aid totals.
School board members agreed that the class size for elementary schools should stay where they are at (about 20-22 students per class), although they did agree that some latitude could be given in increasing the average class size in both middle (about 20 per class) and high schools (16-20 per class).
The board also feels it’s time to taking a closer look at extracurricular activities and try to identify any opportunities for savings. Board member Paul Abbott believes some opportunities are there and the board owes it to residents to identify them.
“We have a very austere budget,” Abbott told WRFA following the meeting. “That being said, in good conscience and in responsibility to the taxpayers and the students – especially the students – I wouldn’t support a budget knowing that some things still existed within that budget [that could be eliminated], while at the same time we are looking at things like staff cuts or program cuts. I just want to make sure we are prioritizing, in the right way, how we are spending our money.”
A program that could see reduced funding or elimination altogether is the TEAM program – which provides additional help to pregnant students as well as students who are mothers. Abbott and other board members said they’d like to have more information on the program, including the cost per student as well as graduation rate for students who are enrolled. Superintendent Mains said he would get back to the board with that information.
In the meantime, Abbott said that TEAM is not a program he would want to see cut, but added that at some point the board has to make the tough decisions.
“There’s nothing about this budget, as it currently exists, that isn’t important or necessary. But unfortunately it becomes a matter of prioritizing things and when we’re looking at a program that may be costing us – and I don’t know what the number is – but I imagine $20,000 to $30,000 per student, we have to take a hard look at things like that,” Abbott said.
The board also agreed that it would remove $65,000 in scheduled upgrades for the former Rogers School building to help reduce costs for next year.
No Adjustments Expected for AEP/PLP and Afterschool Education Programs
The board also felt that no cuts should be made to the district’s AEP/PLP programs – which are used for students who are facing disciplinary action such as a suspension.
Board members also felt that grant-funded after school programs should also remain, so long as the majority of cost continues to be covered by outside grants, with only a minimum contribution by the district’s general operating fund.
Modest Tax Hike Still on the Table
The board also talked about a potential property tax increase, agreeing that a 1.5 percent increase to the tax levy would be about as high as they would be willing to go. An increase at that level would bring in an addition $220,000 for the district and would equate to a property tax rate increase of about 30 cents per $1000 assessed value, meaning a home worth $100,000 would see about a $30 increase. However, residential property owners would likely see a rebate from the state later this year, although it wold only be for 2015 and not future years.
Board member Shelly Leathers said that considering the district has not raised taxes in the past several years, a modest 1.5 percent increase is something that should at least be considered.
“It’s something that I’m very comfortable with. I know we haven’t raised property taxes in a long time,” Leathers explained. “I think keeping it at a reasonable rate, like the inflation rate, I don’t think that’s unreasonable to ask people to dig a little deeper and pitch in a little bit. It’s not a significant amount of money but when we’re talking about saving two or three teaching positions or paraprofessional positions, I think it’s very important.”
Still Waiting for State Aid Numbers
The lone missing piece to the budget puzzle – and by far the biggest component – remains the question of how much additional state aid Jamestown will receive.
This year the district received $55.76 million in state aid. And while school officials realize next school year’s total will not be below that, it remains to be seen just how much of an increase they will see.
The exact aid total won’t be known until lawmaker approve a final state budget – which is due on April 1. Until then, Mains says he and his staff will review the priorities set forth by the board during Wednesday’s meeting and return with a budget proposal in early April.
For more details on the 2015-16 Jamestown school budget process, tune in to this week’s Community Matters program on WRFA, airing Thursday at 6 p.m. with an encore presentation on Sunday at noon.