Capital Region

Uncertainty reigns as Capital Region districts move forward with budget planning

Districts brace for more potential cuts to state education aid

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CAPITAL REGION — As school district across the Capital Region work to finalize budgets for the 2020-2021 school year, officials don’t know when they will go up for voter approval, if they will go up for voter approval and whether they will have to make even more cuts after the budgets are approved.

While uncertainty surrounds many aspects of school district budgets this year –  typically school boards at this point have approved them for voter approval in May – it’s clear that districts are entering an era of tight budgets and difficult reductions stretching beyond just this year.

Districts are turning to tax levy increases, cuts to travel, conferences and staff training, and pulling money from reserve funds as they look to maximize savings and minimize layoffs. But layoffs for many districts will be inevitable.

“Really, we’ve got to see what this April brings,” Greater Amsterdam School District Interim Superintendent Ray Colucciello said during a Wednesday board meeting.

At that meeting, Colucciello and the district’s business official laid out the district’s most current budget status, which raises the tax levy 3.5 percent and eliminates 15 staff positions, with all but two of those staff cuts made through attrition, officials said.

Amsterdam district officials also urged board members to gird themselves for yet more cuts after state officials review state finances through April and potentially cut school district aid beyond the current funding freeze. Colucciello and Colleen DiCaprio, the district school business official, said they expected the state to further reduce the district’s revenue by as much $500,000 next month, or about five more positions.

In the state budget passed at the start of the month, lawmakers included a provision to have state budget officials review incoming revenue against state expenditures and make additional budget reductions if state revenues aren’t keeping up with budget projections. Districts are being advised to hold off on finalizing their budgets for next school year until next month; state officials will continue to review finances and potentially reduce aid to districts throughout the year.

“If you hear the governor, he says he doesn’t have two nickles to rub together,” Colucciello said.

Like all districts in the state, Amsterdam’s traditional budget schedule has been overturned, with approval not coming until June 1 at the earliest. But it’s still unclear on what date districts will be expected to put budgets up for public votes; some observers have proposed allowing school boards to adopt budgets that don’t exceed the tax levy limit without voter approval.

Association groups that lobby for and advise superintendents, school boards and school business officials have advised districts to wait until next month to adopt final budget proposals, giving district officials the opportunity to respond to the first of a series of state budget updates, which could result in a reduction in aid to school districts.

The state budget did technically reduce aid to districts, but each district’s so-called “pandemic adjustment” of federal funds is intended to cover a reduction in state education aid and leave districts with frozen aid. Some district leaders are doubting whether that money will ultimately come through or how the “pandemic adjustment” in this year’s budget will affect district aid over the coming school years.

“We have no guarantee that some of any of that money is going to show up,” Niskayuna Superintendent Cosimo Tangorra Jr. said at Tuesday’s board meeting. Niskayuna faces among the most challenging budgets in the region, with the board currently considering a budget that raises the tax levy 3.76 percent and still eliminates just over two dozen staff positions, some of which will likely come through layoffs.

Some districts, including Scotia-Glenville and Mohonasen, finalized budgets as early as last month, but officials in those districts said they could always revisit the budget proposals as new information comes forward.

Other districts have sought to use every last minute they can to tweak budget proposals and wait for the most accurate aid numbers they can get.

As districts face what could be just a first round of budget cuts, officials have looked to minimize layoffs by eliminating all open positions. They have sought to cut positions where people had already announced plans to retire and in some cases sought to establish retirement incentives.

Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake is also preparing for a difficult budget year, with positions throughout the district being eliminated to cover its budget shortfall.

“It’s gonna seem like a lot, because when you have to actually close a gap of $1.4 million it is a lot,” Superintendent Patrick McGrath said during a budget update this week. “There are a lot of things that have to be reduced. … There’s nothing devastating about these reductions.”

The district is looking at cutting just over six teacher positions and another 12 non-teacher positions, which include eight teaching assistant positions spread across the all district schools.

Unless they have to cut even deeper, Burnt Hill district officials on Wednesday appeared confident they could achieve the cuts without layoffs.

“A lot of what you are looking at are individuals who will retire or resign throughout the year,” David Collins, the district’s assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, said during the budget meeting.

That much, at least, came as good news for some board members.

“Certainly, right now with all the uncertainty in the economy … I think that’s tremendous,” Burnt Hills board member Patrick Ziegler said at the meeting.

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