JOHNSTOWN — Johnstown High School Junior Justin Ferrara, a three-sport varsity athlete, already had his senior year all planned out.
“Every student’s anticipated year is their senior year, it’s like your spotlight year. I’ve been pushing myself every day in practice for three years, working my way up, and now it’s just been pulled away from me,” Ferrara said.
Ferrara said he’s been a participant in Johnstown’s cross-country running, Nordic skiing and track and field programs since he was a freshman, and was hoping to attract the interest of college scouts his senior year and try to make his best attempt at obtaining scholarship offers.
Those plans were placed in doubt Tuesday night when Johnstown’s $38.5 million budget proposal asking for a 35-percent property tax levy increase failed to achieve the 60 percent supermajority needed to override the New York state property tax cap. A slim majority of voters approved of the budget, 1,150 to 1,147.
Johnstown’s school board was seeking to raise the district’s tax levy in order to close a $4.3 million budget deficit in two years, with another 15 percent tax levy increase attempt next year.
Prior to the vote the school board indicated it would eliminate all of the district’s sports programs, extracurricular activities — including band, school plays, concerts and club activities — as well as all high school elective classes in order to trim an additional $1.6 million from the district’s expenses.
Ferrara said he made up his senior year class schedule last week and more than half his classes are electives. He said if the district eliminates most of his classes, he may look at going to Fulton-Montgomery Community College instead.
Wednesday the school board listened to angry members of the public, people who voted both in favor of the budget and against it, and from students, some of whom attended grief counseling provided by the district Wednesday do the potential loss of their school-based social activities.
Harry Brand, who voted against the budget, spoke several times during the public comment period, saying he doesn’t except the label of being “against the children of the district,” which he feels has been put on the voters who rejected the tax hike. He said the school board should use its reserves to fund its programs as long as possible and try for a more gradual increase of the district’s tax levy.
“Why does it have to be this scorched earth all or nothing approach,” he said.
Johnstown has about $7 million in reserve funds, some of which has been put into specific-purpose reserve funds that can’t easily be used for general expense purposes. Superintendent Patrisha Kilburn said the school board could choose to spend down its reserves to maintain the district’s programs, but if it tries to do that it could run out of money completely within two years.
“In two years we’d have nothing left, and the [New York state] Comptroller’s Office wouldn’t let us do that. You have to maintain some money in reserves,” Kilburn said. “If we did that, we’d still have a gap in our budget, and we wouldn’t have the revenue to support what we have.”
Board members have indicated they will likely put forward a 14.6 percent tax levy increase, which is within the district’s tax cap and would only need 51 percent voter approval, at a second school budget vote June 18.
Johnstown officials have stated that if the 14.6 percent tax levy increase is approved for 2019-20, the district will need to raise its property tax levy by an additional 18 percent over the next three budgets in order to preserve its high school and kindergarten programs, both of which are considered to be non-mandated programs by New York state.
Johnstown’s school property tax levy is currently $8.6 million and 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 local property tax spending per student is also in the bottom 10 percent of all New York state schools.
Brand said even if it could have achieved a 50-percent levy increase in two years, district budget projections show the need for annual increases after that to maintain programming.
“There are no guarantees either way, so why not spend the reserves now for the kids?” he said.
Fulton County Industrial Development Agency board member David D’Amore, an architect who lives within the Johnstown school district, said he believes Johnstown’s decision to eliminate its sports and extracurricular activities could result in a “demographic death spiral” for the city of Johnstown, scaring away young families
“That’s how I conceptualize this. I feel like we just shot ourselves in the face,” he said. “You’re going to have families like myself — I have a daughter here deeply involved in the music program — and I might have to make an investment in her education and send her elsewhere, so you’re going to be losing student population. You’re going to have families trying to move away, and that creates a buyer’s real estate market, and that depresses home values.”
D’Amore said the Fulton County IDA has heard from companies considering moving into Fulton County and they often ask about the school districts and what programs they offer. He said companies are often shocked that Fulton County has seven school districts, as many parts of the country have countywide school district systems.
“Low taxes are important, but they are not the only thing in economic development,” he said.
Johnstown Fourth Ward Common Council member Scott Jeffers, who also works for the Johnstown district as a teacher, said he hopes the district vote will not result in a death spiral for the city, but said he believes there is a danger it might.
“If we cut all of these programs it is going to make the city less desirable to live here. You need that younger generation moving here, living here, buying things,” he said.
Johnstown Mayor Vern Jackson in a written statement said he is concerned about the potential ramifications of the school budget defeat.
“Obviously, if all they are saying with regard to the elimination of extracurricular activities comes to fruition it would have an effect on living in Johnstown. People who are possibly looking to move here always ask about the school system. Sports are an integral part of a child’s school years but academics are also very important. To eliminate some of the AP courses and such is not good either,” he said.
Jackson said he is not concerned a lack of afterschool activities for teens could increase the city’s crime rate.
“The students in the Johnstown schools are bright and energetic so I don’t see any kind of issue with crime. They will persevere and will make the best of the situation,” he said.
Kilburn has indicated the district will need to cut more than the eight positions that were already eliminated for Johnstown’s 2019-20 budget proposal. She said it will need to be more than two positions, but the positions haven’t been finalized yet.
School board President Kathy Dougherty said the school board might still decide to use more of its reserves to fund some of the eliminated programs, but she isn’t certain a majority of the board will be willing to take the risk of spending down all of the district’s money.
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