Schenectady County

School districts draw up budgets in the dark

Budgets are never easy, but this year has taken the process to a new level of misery.

Budgets are never easy to draw up, but this year has taken the process to a new level of misery.

Local school board members and school superintendents have to build a budget without knowing how much state aid they will or won’t get. Will they get a cut? Will they get more money than last year?

They have no idea, and it’s driving them crazy.

“We should’ve known by now,” said Mohonasen Board of Education President Dom Cafarelli. “If you expect school districts to do their jobs, you can’t leave them hanging.”

He’s frustrated that Gov. Andrew Cuomo will not show anyone the proposed state aid for each school district. Cuomo is locked in a battle with the state Legislature over school reforms, and has said he’s willing to keep fighting even if it means a late state budget.

The school districts are stuck in the middle.

For the Mohonasen Central School District, Cafarelli figures the news will be bad whenever the state aid is announced.

“I fear that we’re going to be miserable no matter how it comes out,” he said. “But knowing would at least allow us to plan.”

Instead, he and other Mohonasen officials are making a list of teachers to potentially lay off and vacant positions to potentially not fill. If state aid is announced just days before the school district must finalize its 2015-2016 budget, they will at least have a list to work from, he said.

“The governor has cut aid so much that we’ve gotten to the point we almost expect it,” Cafarelli said.

But there have been proposals — which some school officials call promises — that Cuomo would increase aid. What would Mohonasen do then?

Cafarelli would love more teachers. But he noted that a last-minute announcement of good news would be problematic.

“You need to be able to plan to be successful,” he said.

At the Schalmont Central School District, officials aren’t sure how to meet state requirements regarding the budget, since they have no idea how much money they will have to spend.

In addition to the normal problems of creating a budget, they also need to file a tax efficiency proposal so that their residents will receive a tax rebate under the new state rules, Schalmont Board of Education President Gregory Campoli noted.

Residents got rebates last fall if their districts stayed under the tax cap; this year the districts must also file efficiency plans by June 1. Those plans must show that the district is cutting costs through consolidation.

Campoli said the lack of information from the state has left board members guessing about whether their proposed budget will fall under the tax cap.

“It also affects our ability to meet the state’s deadline for submitting a tax efficiency proposal and knowing whether it has been accepted,” he said. “Creating a district budget is always challenging, but it’s even more so this year with so much uncertainty surrounding the state budget.”

In Niskayuna, interim Superintendent of Schools John Yagielski has been leading budget sessions since October to rethink every expense.

The state aid mystery adds more uncertainty to the process, he said.

He noted that every district — even ones that are well-off — needs state aid.

“More and more, each district has to rely more heavily on state aid, with the tax cap issue that’s in place and the limits that are on residents,” he said. “A challenge for sure.”

At the state, some officials are sympathetic, although they will be enforcing budget deadlines. School districts must file their tax cap information by March 1 and their efficiency plans by June 1.

“They’re in an unenviable position,” said Comptroller’s Office spokesman Brian Butry, before adding that state law specifies the deadlines.

“It makes the situation even more difficult,” he said.

The office will let school districts update their information as they get it, he added.

As for their budgets, he said his best advice was to create a series of options based on various state aid scenarios. Schenectady is developing three budgets: one with deep cuts, one with moderate cuts, and one with some added services in case the district gets more aid.

Butry said that was the way to go.

“They’re going to have to look at a number of options,” he said.

Categories: News, Schenectady County

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