Schenectady school officials may have to cut as much as $3.5 million in next year’s budget — or they may have as much as $2.5 million more to spend, Superintendent Larry Spring told school board members on Wednesday night.
With less than a month to go before the state Legislature hits its own deadline for passing a budget, funding levels at the district level remain so uncertain that Schenectady officials are weighing program priorities for both ends of the budget spectrum.
The district has revised downward its expectation for how much the board could raise its tax levy without having to win a supermajority of voters in May. That number is down to 0.7 percent, or around $370,000. When district staff made an initial budget presentation, it told the board it would be able to increase the levy as much as 2.7 percent — around $1.5 million.
Board President Cathy Lewis on Wednesday said she didn’t think it would be worth raising the tax levy at all, which would leave the total amount of money the district collected from taxpayers flat but not necessarily the rates taxpayers actually pay.
The decrease in the tax levy limit was the result of new PILOT programs coming online, which also add to the district’s revenue side of the equation about $650,000 next year. Other costs remain in flux as well. The costs of some health insurance plans, for example, are expected to rise as much as 10 percent to 15 percent.
“With the pluses and minuses we are still in about the same range we had been, so the good news and the bad news even out,” Kimberly Lewis, district business director, told the board. At the start of budget discussions, board members were told they faced an expected $3.5 million “budget gap.”
The board also got an update on the status of the district’s grant funding, which is expected to result in a net decrease in funding as around $1.7 million in grant dollars come off the books next year. The district is pursuing other grants to replace those that are expiring, Spring said.
But the board has yet to take up any specific proposals from staff about what next year’s budget — set for a May 17 approval vote from taxpayers — will look like.
“Each meeting we will have a part of it,” Spring told the board after board member Cheryl Nechamen asked if there were going to be more specifics presented at Wednesday night’s meeting. “It’s a little difficult to delve too deeply into it.”
After the meeting, Nechamen and Cathy Lewis said they were waiting for the budget specifics.
“It feels as if it’s getting late but it’s still March 9 and we have 30 days [until an April board approval deadline],” Lewis said. “Staff is evaluating their items and prioritizing their initiatives, and that will give us a better budget.”
Spring said his recommendations to the board would be a lot different if they face a deficit than if they find themselves with more money to invest in programs. He said the biggest missing piece of the puzzle is what the Legislature ends up spending on foundation aid this year. The more money lawmakers put into foundation aid, the better position the district will be in formulating its budget.
“We are in the position with the state that we easily could be cutting a couple, two, three million dollars or we could be adding,” Spring said. “We are trying to work through both ends of that and present a recommendation to the board — when the swing is that big that’s difficult.”
Spring said the $2.5 million increase was on the “optimistic” side of things and said at an earlier meeting that the $3.5 million budget hole was based on “conservative” estimates that could likely yield a smaller gap in the end.
Reach Gazette reporter Zachary Matson at 395-3120, [email protected] or @zacharydmatson on Twitter.