JOHNSTOWN – The Greater Johnstown School District Board of Education Monday indicated support for adopting a 2019-20 $38.5 million school budget with a 50 percent tax levy increase.
The school board also laid out potential options should a 60 percent supermajority of voters fail to support such a proposed hike.
The school board is next scheduled to meet April 17, at which time it is expected to formally voting on putting the proposed budget and its accompanying tax hike to voters in May.
If district voters don’t approve the 50 percent tax levy hike, the district will likely cut an additional $1.6 million in spending, which would include the elimination of all varsity sports, secondary school electives and extracurricular activities.
A non-binding straw poll vote of the board Monday indicated support for the 50 percent increase, which would eliminate almost all of the district’s $4.7 million budget deficit.
School Board member Kathryn Zajicek said the district’s budget consultant Rick Timbs told the board it needed to substantially increase property taxes, cut spending and rethink how the district provides programming. She expressed skepticism about whether district voters will approve the 50 percent levy hike.
“We don’t want to cut anything,” Zajicek said. “But I’m not sure a 50 percent increase is a possibility. I’m sorry to say that.”
Last year Johnstown school district voters authorized overriding the state-mandated property tax cap, but only after rejecting a 4.9 percent tax levy hike.
To approve a 50 percent tax levy increase, a supermajority, or 60 percent, of the school district voters would need to vote yes on May 21.
Johnstown’s 2019-20 New York state property tax cap allows for a 14.6 tax levy increase, higher than the typical 2 percent, due to debt service exemptions from the district’s recent capital project.
Anticipating voter rejection, school Superintendent Patricia Kilborn said it’s likely the board would put a second budget to voters. That would likely entail a tax-cap allowed increase of 14.6 percent — increasing the levy $1.2 million — which would only require a majority of voters to approve it, Kilborn noted.
The 14.6 percent increase would still require Johnstown to use $1.2 million of its remaining $3.6 million in reserves.
A tax-cap budget would give the district three years before it would exhaust all of its reserves and be forced to eliminate kindergarten and non-mandated high school programs.
“We would try to retain high school and kindergarten, and then the following year we would have to pursue an 18 percent increase to retain high school and kindergarten,” Kilborn said.
Kilborn cautioned that the 50 percent tax-levy increase budget proposal would not increase individual residents tax bills by 50 percent, it would increase the district’s total projected property tax levy from $8.6 million to $12.9 million.
Johnstown’s property tax levy only pays for 28 percent of the district’s total costs, considerably less than the regional average for school districts, which is 37 percent. Johnstown would have to increase its total property tax levy to $12.3 million to get to the regional average. Johnstown’s per student spending is also in the bottom 10 percent of all New York state schools.
Kilborn said a proposed 50 percent increase budget would also include about $500,000 in spending cuts, although she couldn’t breakdown exactly where the cuts will be applied.
“We can’t at this time; it’s personnel related,” Kilborn said. “We have some attrition; we have some people who are possibly not coming back next year for a variety of reasons, like retirements and some positions we’re going to try not to rehire.”
If voters reject both of those options, Johnstown would go to a contingency budget, which offers a zero percent tax levy increase.
That scenario would require the district to use $2.4 million of its reserves, while cutting all after school sports and extracurricular activities, and start a clock of two years before the district would need to eliminate kindergarten and non-mandated high school programs.
Johnstown resident Dave D’Amore said if some of the programs necessary for a tax cap budget are eliminated, he would likely pull his children out of the school district. He said if Johnstown’s school district continues to decline he believes property values in Johnstown will also fall as people either leave the area or newcomers continue to purchase homes elsewhere.
“I think there is a massive undercurrent of resentment in this room because of where we currently stand,” D’Amore said. “I don’t know if it’s pointed at anyone up there on the board. But I think there is a sense of betrayal that this has been going on for 10 years and here we are.”
The 10-year period D’Amore refers to goes back to when Johnstown decided to close the Jansen Avenue Elementary School in 2009. Some district residents have argued two elementary schools should have been closed. Since that time the school district has declined in population by another 330 students, the equivalent of another elementary school.
Kilborn said Johnstown has formed a committee to explore the possibility of closing another elementary school. But the committee’s report won’t be completed until August, and the board won’t consider eliminating another elementary school until the 2020-21 budget.
School Board member Susanne Fitzgerald said she served on the board 10 years ago, and she believes the board’s decision to have smaller than needed tax increases over that time period has brought Johnstown to the brink of large tax increases or major program cuts now. She said the wake of the Great Recession played a role in the board’s small tax increase decisions.
“I don’t think we would have made any other decision, because it was awful,” Fitzgerald said. “People were losing jobs, getting cars repossessed. It just wasn’t a time we could have done much else.”
Johnstown resident Steve Serge said the school board should lobby for mandate relief from Albany.
Kilborn said mandate relief would help, pointing out the district’s highest expense for the 2018-19 school year is special education for first through eighth grade, $5.1 million, which doesn’t include the $1.2 million the district pays to send some special needs students to out-of-district programs.
Johnstown provided a breakdown of what a 50-percent tax-levy hike would cost taxpayers with a home assessed at $100,000: Basic STAR, $526 (Johnstown city), $849 (Johnstown, town); Enhanced STAR $249 (city), $572 (town); No STAR, $751.46 (city) $1,075 (town).
For a tax-cap budget proposal, the breakdown for a $100,000 home would be: Basic STAR, $147 (Johnstown city); $238 (Johnstown, town); enhanced STAR $70 (city), $160 (town). The district did not release Monday the no STAR benefit numbers for a tax-cap budget.