JOHNSTOWN — The Greater Johnstown School District canceled its in-person “Community Outreach and Listening Tour” session originally scheduled for Wednesday night at 7 p.m., citing “low pre-registration” numbers.
Communicating with the public has been a key part of the GJSD’s strategy for dealing with its ongoing fiscal crisis, which has caused it to cut 25 percent of its staff and close two schools since the 2017-18 school year.
Superintendent William Crankshaw said eight people had pre-registered to attend the Wednesday listening session. Preregistration, as well as a temperature check and COVID-19 social distancing rules would have all been requirements to attend the session.
“While the board was working hard to speak to as many constituents as possible, the registration was low and each person who registered was contacted personally about the change — it was that low of an enrollment,” Crankshaw said.
Eight people would have been significantly more than the number of general public attendees at the district’s first in-person budget hearing on March 18, but also significantly less than the number of online attendees of the four virtual listening tour sessions the GJSD conducted via the video conferencing program Zoom, two each held in January and February. District officials estimate there were about 60 online attendees for the Zoom meetings.
Johnstown is one of three school districts in the Capital Region (along with Fonda-Fultonville and Scotia-Glenville) that have indicated to the New York State Comptroller that the district will likely ask for supermajority (60 percent) voter approval to exceed the state mandated tax cap for the 2021-22 school budget process. Johnstown has a 3.8 percent tax cap for 2021-22 but district officials say Johnstown needs about double that in order to have a chance to avoid spending all of its $13.2 million in reserves before going over a fiscal cliff and returning to a multi-million dollar deficit by the 2024-25 school year.
The GJSD is currently projecting a $40.7 million 2021-22 school budget, with a 4.3 percent year-over-year spending increase of $1.7 million and a proposed tax levy hike of 8 percent, a total property tax increase of about $1.8 million.
The GJSD has failed to get a 60 percent majority to pass several proposed property tax cap busting increases in recent years, including its first attempt to pass its 2020-21 budget, which had a tax increase of 5 percent. During the first all-mail school budget vote, held due to the coronavirus pandemic, Johnstown did not get 60 percent approval, but then the school board put out the same budget again and it passed with 65 percent voter approval during the all in-person school budget vote held on July 28.
Crankshaw said the Johnstown school board has decided not to hold any more “listening tour” sessions, which contradicts a March 19 GJSD news release, which stated “the district plans to continue the monthly sessions through the remainder of this current school year.”
In the news release, School Board President Chris Tallon praised the importance of the listening tour meetings.
“We’ve really appreciated the opportunity to speak directly to members of our community and answer their specific questions,” Tallon stated in the news release. “Transparency is incredibly important to us. These sessions allow the public to better understand the board’s role and provide insight on our decision-making process, while giving them the opportunity to take an active role in shaping the future of this district.”
Crankshaw said the school board believes there will be enough opportunities to communicate with the public through regular school board meetings and budget workshops without the need for additional “listening tour” sessions, a term Crankshaw does not prefer.
“I call them community conversations,” Crankshaw said. “We never scheduled one for April, because that’s a very intensive month for meetings anyway. The board wanted to outreach to the community, just to clarify some of the district’s operations and to answer some of the questions proactively that people have; that we know have historically come up. Tonight was supposed to be all about long-range planning, fiscal planning and the budget process, but because we had this enrollment issue —it’s just a more efficient use of time certainly, because it’s going to be covered again.”
Crankshaw said there will be another in-person budget workshop meeting held at 6 p.m. April 22 at the former Knox Junior High School Auditorium.
Crankshaw said it is possible the proposed 2021-22 budget may change after New York State passes its budget in the early part of April. He said Johnstown is due to be repaid about $440,000 in school aid that was held back by the state during its fiscal crisis for the 2020-21 school year, and there could be as much as $300,000 in additional state aid provided to Johnstown for the 2021-22 school year. Another factor that could change the budget might be the $2.5 million in pandemic aid from the recent $1.9 trillion coronavirus aid package passed by Congress and President Biden’s administration.
Crankshaw said he probably won’t know until April how those different funding streams may impact Johnstown’s 2021-22 budget.