ALBANY — The state Education Department on Wednesday published budget data from hundreds of school districts across they state as those district put their spending plans up for voter approval June 9.
Mail-in ballots have been sent to residents, though some may still be a couple of days away, and voters must return votes by June 9 at 5 p.m. to have their vote counted.
Here’s four takeaways from the data:
Levy increases around 2 percent
School districts in the Capital Region are seeking tax levy increases averaging just over 2 percent in budgets for next school year up for voter approval June 9, according to state data released Wednesday.
The levy increases ranged from the lows of Schenectady and Sharon Springs both proposing no levy increase to Johnstown’s proposed tax levy increase of 5 percent. Rensselear City School District, though not included in the average, is seeking a massive 19.5 percent levy increase as it looks to remedy deep fiscal challenges.
Statewide the average tax levy increase is also 2.2 percent, according to an analysis by the New York Association of School Business Officials, while proposed spending increases averaged 1.8 percent.
The analysis counted 15 districts across the state proposing budgets above the district’s tax cap and and requiring 60 percent voter approval, including Johnstown, Fort Edward, Rensselaer City and Northville school districts.
“School districts designed their 2020-2021 budgets in a climate of great fiscal challenges and uncertainty about what education (next) school year will look like,” according to the association’s report.
Reliance on fund balance grows
Districts are turning to their fund balances, funding cushions that effectively serve as districts’ savings in case of emergencies, to ease the pain of budget cuts.
Each year districts decide how much to appropriate from their fund balance, a move that if used to heavily draw down district savings and create budget problems in future years.
Three dozen area districts propose to appropriate a combined $73.4 million in fund balance next school year, up from a combined total of $64.3 million this year. Niskayuna, for example, boosted its appropriated fund balance from around $1.5 million this year to over $4.5 million next year against the advice of the superintendent in order to spare well over a dozen staff positions. North Colonie also boosted its reliance on appropriated fund balance from $1.75 million this year to $4.8 million next year.
Many districts have also rolled savings as a result of school closures this year directly into next year’s budget as a way to offset tax increases and budget cuts.
The tough budgets hurt but not as bad as contingency
District are imposing hiring freezes, eliminating unfilled positions, trimming extracurricular offerings and, in some places, laying off teachers.
But as tough as those budget cuts may be, district officials are warning the cost of a failing to approve the budget would be far worse. With no opportunity to propose a second budget for residents to approve or reject, districts expect to have to fall back on contingency budgets if their proposals are rejected.
Contingency budgets force districts to keep their tax levies flat and impose strict spending restrictions. District officials have said contingency budgets would result in cuts to students programs and would likely result in major staff reductions.
“With only one scheduled vote this year, districts whose budgets are defeated in the June 9 vote will likely have to adopt incredibly punitive contingency budgets, which result in much deeper cuts and long-term financial and education harm,” the business officials groups wrote in its analysis. “Because there is only vote scheduled, it is important that communities support their public schools.”
Enrollments expected to slide somewhat
When districts provide the budget numbers to the state, they include projected enrollment figures for next school year. While some districts are expecting enrollment increases, the combined totals suggest districts foresee a small decline in overall enrollment numbers next school year.
Out of three dozen Capital Region districts, 16 projected enrollment declines, 16 projected enrollment increase, while four reported they’re expecting enrollment to remain level.
Canajoharie, Cobleskill-Richmondville, Johnstown, Mayfield and Wateford-Halfmoon all reported they expected enrollment declines of more than 3 percent.