JOHNSTOWN — Johnstown school and city officials are making a final push to get district residents to approve the same budget proposal they narrowly rejected last month.
Unlike last month’s mail-in-only election, polls will be open to voters July 28 for a second vote on the district’s budget. While district residents have a chance to request an absentee ballot, they won’t be sent to residents automatically like they were in June.
The district lost its last bid for budget approval when 57 percent of voters supported the budget proposal, falling about 70 votes short of the 60 percent supermajority required to increase the tax levy above the district tax cap.
Johnstown interim Superintendent Karen Geelan and other district official presented the second-try proposal at a public hearing Wednesday night and took questions from the public during a call-in forum Thursday morning.
The Johnstown Common Council in a letter penned by Mayor Vernon Jackson submitted to the Gloversville Leader-Herald threw its support behind the budget proposal, highlighting the role quality schools plays in attracting people to the community.
“One of the most important factors a city, town or village needs is a sound, stable and comprehensive school district,” Jackson wrote on behalf of the Johnstown Common Council. “Please consider voting yes on the budget so the district can continue to provide skills and knowledge our children need to take into adulthood.”
The $38.97 million proposal for the 2020-2021 school year includes a 5 percent tax levy increase, eliminates a handful of district staff positions and uses around $3 million in fund balance to trim the proposed levy increase.
The district has also taken steps to pare down costs by closing Glebe Street Elementary and repurposing Knox Junior High School for administrative offices and to lease to BOCES. Geelan said she thinks there was some confusion over the Knox closure during last month’s vote, suggesting some residents thought they were also voting on whether to close Knox. Geelan said the decision to move students out of Knox is already moving forward and helping the district stabilize its finances.
Geelan said the district’s proposal reduces spending in administrative and capital costs while increasing expenses in students programs.
“We have some (academic) issues we need to address, and we have increased our programming,” Geelan said on Thursday’s call-in session. “Field trips and activities and really paying attention to the whole child comes to about a cup of coffee a week.”
Geelan said the district’s budget picture has improved since last year, when officials indicated they would need multiple years of double-digit tax levy increases. However, she also highlighted the uncertainity surrounding state education aid as the state grapples with a massive revenue shortfall.
If the budget is again rejected, the district will have to fall back on a contingency budget that keeps the tax levy flat and forces officials to cut more than what is outlined in the proposal, including teachers, an assistant principal and school nurses, teaching assistants, field trips, equipment and extracurricular activities.
Just one district resident raised questions during the Thursday call-in session, a supporter who asked what could be done to reach voters in the community who were confused about the budget.
The caller also asked about the prospect of Johnstown dissolving as a district or merging with a neighboring district. But Geelan said that was unlikely because the district’s most logical partner, Gloversville, is like Johnstown a small city school district and two small city school districts cannot merge. If Johnstown wanted to pursue a merger, she said the district would have to find one of its neighboring districts that would be willing to become a part of the Johnstown district. Residents in both districts would have to approve of such a merger.
“I don’ t think we could get a positive vote where anyone would want us to take them over,” she said.
Geelan, who also took questions from the Daily Gazette on Thursday morning, said she has faced some questions in the community about why district officials chose to put up the same budget proposal voters had already rejected. She said she thinks “some people were confused by the process” of that last budget vote, which relied on an unprecedented all-mail voting process and noted residents who called on the school board to try again on the same budget.
“There was a huge outpouring of folks urging the board, urging district administrators to go out with the same budget because they say 57 percent being extremely positive support,” Geelan said.
Geelan said if the budget is approved, she expects next year the board could again ask residents to support a budget with a levy increase of around 5 percent – or at least in the single digits. But if the budget is rejected and the levy stays flat this year, Geelan said she thinks the district would need to pursue a double-digit tax levy increase.
Even as Johnstown district officials work to finalize a budget for the coming school year, they are also starting to make plans for what that school year may look like. The state Education Department on Thursday released a 145-page guidance document, outlining requirements and best practices for returning students to school.
Geelan said the district had a group of people working on plans and noted efforts were largely focused on establishing a workable hybrid model that relies on both in-person and remote instruction.
“We’ll be as ready as anyone else,” she said of the start of the new school year,” she said.