JAMESTOWN, NY – The Jamestown School Board and area residents now have more information regarding the financial challenges the district faces as it works on completing the 2015-16 budget – and while the news isn’t the worst case scenario, it remains very dire.
On Thursday night Jamestown school superintendent Tim Mains and school finance director Kevin Ziemba presented budget information to the school board, including how much the district would need to spend to maintain this year’s current level of instruction and programs, as well as what the specific budget gap would be to achieve that goal.
According to the presentation, the 2015-16 budget would be $78.54 million without any changes, which is an increase of $2.77 million over the current year’s budget.
Mains and Ziemba also said that the current budget gap for next school year is $4.95 million, adding that the gap doesn’t factor in any increase over the current year’s state aid ($55.76 million) because Albany has not released any details on how much aid Jamestown might receive. Instead, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has instructed all districts across the state to use the current year’s aid amount until lawmakers are able to agree on a final 2015-16 state budget.
During the presentation, Mains said it’s frustrating that Jamestown is faced with such a large budget gap, considering the various challenges it faces as a high-needs district.
“Here we are talking about how to just hold on to what we have, when what I really want to do is tell you how we should be growing,” Mains said. “What I really want to do is tell you that if we are going to get done what we need to get done, we need to spend more. I can’t do more with less. I can only do more with more. We have to have more funding than what we are getting.”
EARLY RETIREMENTS HELP TO CLOSE INITIAL GAP
Just a few days ago, school officials had said the district could be facing a budget gap as high as $7 million. But a key reason why it’s been brought down to $4.9 million without any cuts is due to 20 teachers having agreed to take an early retirement. In fact, Main says that as a result of the early retirements, the salary for teachers will be at about the same level for next year as it is this year, and that’s without considering the possibility of cutting some positions.
“The retirement incentive we offered was to teachers and the only reason we have an actual savings in instructional salaries is because of those retirements. Absent that, those would have been going up significantly,” Mains said.
Without eliminating any positions, instructional salaries for 2015-16 currently total about $29.5 million dollars. That’s about $100,000 less than the current year. Instructional salaries are the largest line item in the budget, covering more than a third of all costs.
TAX INCREASE CAPPED AT 3.25 PERCENT
Mains and Ziemba also provided information regarding the district’s property tax cap.
They said that because the current year’s tax levy ($14,640,679) contained no increase over the previous year, the district could – if it wanted to – raise taxes by as much as 3.25 percent ($476,361) and still be under the mandated state tax cap.
However, school board members have said that while all options remain on the table at this time, a maximum allowed property tax hike is something they would work to avoid.
CRAFTING A BUDGET WITHOUT ALL THE NEEDED INFORMATION
The biggest challenge the district faces remains trying to work on a budget without knowing how much state aid the district will be receiving.
In past years, the governor at least provided a starting point by offering school runs to each district in the state, based on the amount of education funding earmarked in his executive budget.
However, this year Gov. Cuomo has said he would not provide any state aid runs to school districts until the legislature passes a series of education reforms he’s proposed, which are tied to a more strict teacher evaluation system. The governor says if those reforms are passed, education aid would see a $1.1 billion increase. Without the reforms it would only be $377 million.
But both the state Assembly and Senate have balked at the notion of passing the governor’s reforms to increase education aid – setting up a likely showdown in the coming weeks before the April 1 stage budget deadline.
Both houses have already passed their own versions of the state budget, with the Democratic-controlled Assembly pledging $1.8 billion more for education, while the Republican-controlled Senate is pledging $1.9 billion.
Until a final budget is agreed upon by all three parties, the exact amount of funding Jamestown will receive remains a big question mark. But school officials, including board president Joe DiMaio, say they will continue to lobby lawmakers in Albany to make sure Jamestown gets as much state funding as possible to close the gap.
“That’s why it’s so important that we continue this – you might call it a ‘barrage’ of letters and emails, whatever we can do,” DiMaio said. “Because the amount that the legislature is proposing, if we they can somehow convince the governor to go along with that, that will go a long way in helping us.”
The deadline for the school board to approve its budget is April 26. It will meet again during a work session on Wednesday, March 18 to further discuss the budget, including having a conversation on prioritizing cuts – if necessary – in order to offset any final budget gap. That meeting will begin at 7 p.m. and will be open to the public.
In the meantime, school officials are urging teachers and residents to continue to put the pressure on Albany. Superintendent Mains said he will also continue the lobbying effort in the coming days and weeks, hoping that Jamestown will get the funding it needs in order to avoid cutting positions or programs.