Montgomery County

2 school districts face different fortunes with budgets

Fort Plain students will likely spend more time in art class over the coming year if voters approve

Fort Plain students will likely spend more time in art class over the coming year if voters approve the district’s proposed budget.

“We feel very fortunate to be able to bring a few things back,” said business manager Carl Rockefeller.

The district’s $19.3 million proposed budget was approved by the Board of Education last month and will go before voters May 21. It represents a $700,000 increase in spending with a less than 1 percent tax levy increase, which Rockefeller said would allow a few previous cuts to be reversed.

“We’ve been cutting staff pretty steadily since 2008,” he said.

In 2013-14, the district plans to bring back an art teacher and physical education instructor and fund a few field trips. The added spending is made possible by a roughly $400,000 increase in state aid and $100,000 more than the usual withdrawal from the district’s reserve fund.

In all, Rockefeller said, the school will be in pretty good shape over the coming year.

tighter plan

The Canajoharie Central School District, Fort Plain’s neighbor to the east, wasn’t quite as fortunate during its recent budget process.

The two districts have a lot in common.

They’re both mostly rural and both teach somewhere in the ballpark of 1,000 students for just under $20 million a year.

Each district will see an uptick in state aid over the coming year and each expects to use nearly $1 million of its reserve funds. Even so, Canajoharie’s proposed budget is tighter than Fort Plain’s.

Canajoharie’s $19.7 million budget represents a nearly $500,000 spending increase and would raise the tax levy by 2.5 percent.

The extra money however, won’t bring back art teachers. Rather, the higher taxes and a small increase in state aid will forestall further cuts to staff and existing programs.

According to Rockefeller, nearly all area school districts are dealing with similar problems. The costs of staff health insurance and retirement benefits are going up dramatically and state aid is still less than it was years ago.

“It’s all the rural schools,” he said.

Fort Plain’s comfortable 2013-14 budget is possible only because of past savings. Late last year, the State Comptroller’s Office told the district its fund balance far exceeded the legal limit. Rockefeller is still trying to work through the money in a responsible manner.

Usually, there’s a worry inherent in spending from savings. For a school district, using the fund balance often simply delays inevitable cuts.

Canajoharie expects to spend roughly $80,000 more from savings in the next school year than in 2012-13. According to the district website, “The problem of long-term financial sustainability still remains.”

For Fort Plain, though, spending an extra $100,000 is a legal requirement. It might be guilt-free, but Rockefeller said the boost is temporary.

“We might be in better shape than other districts at the moment,” he said, “but spending from reserves is going to catch up with all of us in the end.”

Also before voters May 21 are district Board of Education elections. In Fort Plain incumbents Ronald Kardash and Louis Capece are running to retain their seats. In Canajoharie, incumbent Rachael Mason is running unopposed for her seat.

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