JOHNSTOWN — Thanks to a $776,948 increase in state and federal aid, the Greater Johnstown School District school board Thursday night adopted its first budget in four years that doesn’t seek to break the New York state tax cap.
All school board members in attendance Thursday night voted to adopt the proposed $39.96 million 2021-22 budget. The budget includes a 2.5% year-over-year spending increase of $992,700 and a 3.8% property tax levy increase of $393,247. The budget spends $2.5 million of the school district’s roughly $13.2 million in fund balance reserves, $519,767 less than the reserve spending for the 2020-21 school budget.
The budget adds three new staff positions, each with an estimated cost of $80,000, including salary and benefits: an elementary visual arts teacher; a behavioral specialist for general education classrooms; and a secondary mathematics teacher able to teach advanced placement coding.
Superintendent William Crankshaw presented the budget to the board. He said the budget acknowledges that school district residents have been through a lot over the last few years, but the school board’s actions over the past several years plus increased New York state foundation aid of $400,000 has helped to ease the district’s fiscal crisis.
“This 3.8% tax levy increase does not exceed the allowable tax cap for the Greater Johnstown School District, that is the first time in four years that has happened,” he said.
Johnstown has been struggling with a fiscal crisis for the past several years as it has tried to close a large annual budget deficit, estimated at $4.3 million in 2019, leading the school board to propose large tax-cap-breaking tax levy increases several years in a row. In an attempt to close the gap, the school board has closed an elementary school, the district’s junior high school, eliminated 25% of the district’s staff and for the 2019-20 school year eliminated nearly all district funding for athletic teams and extracurricular activities.
Earlier in March the GJSD school board was projecting at $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 — an increase of $1.8 million.
That plan was dropped after the increase to Johnstown’s state and federal aid from the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, passed by Congress and signed by President Joe Biden on March 11.
Crankshaw said if the majority of school district voters in Johnstown don’t approve the proposed budget during the May 18 school budget vote, the board will have the choice to put forward the same budget again or a contingency budget with a zero-percent tax levy increase. Crankshaw said Johnstown’s contingency budget would be $39.6 million, increasing year-over-year spending by $616,250 and would include an unspecified number of cuts to athletics, extracurricular activities, supplies, equipment and professional development training.
During the meeting the board also voted to accept $419,306 in U.S CARES Act Education Stabilization fund money for the current 2020-21 school year. The CARES Act funding was passed during President Donald Trump’s term.
The school board is also proposing three propositions for the May 18 budget vote: the purchase of three 66-passenger buses; a request to spend 485,340 from the school’s capital reserve fund; and a proposition to reduce the number of school board members from nine down to seven.
‘Quarantine the Quarantine’
With Johnstown’s funding crisis apparently averted for now, only one member of the public spoke during the public comment period of the meeting, district resident Kristen Baker, a member of the Facebook group ‘Quarantine the Quarantine.’
Baker said she’s never met with any of the other members of the Facebook group, but she was inspired by their call to lobby school districts in Fulton County to return to all in-person instruction by the beginning of the fall 2021-22 school year.
Baker wore a mask as she spoke to the board, as did everyone at the meeting. She told the board the Quarantine with the Quarantine group has scheduled a conference meeting with Fulton County Director of Public Health Laurel Headwell to discuss what the members of the group perceive to be overly strict quarantine directives announced from her office.
Headwell has issued five COVID-19 exposure alerts over the past month, as Fulton County’s COVID-19 positivity rate has remained stubbornly higher than the rest of the region’s and the county’s percentage of vaccinated residents has ranked near the bottom of New York state counties, only 31.% as of Thursday.
Baker said she is unaware of the local COVID-19 positivity rate or precisely how it’s calculated. She said she isn’t against people receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, but would not say if she had or would agree to take it. She said she’s not against mask wearing, but she believes the quarantine rules have been too restrictive and at times disruptive to school-age children in Fulton County.
“Across the state there are many individuals with different ideas who wish to create attention, and obviously some are more undesirable than others,” she said. “We have seen the impact of undesirable avenues across the country, and no one wants that in a small community; that is why we organized. That is why we are here.”
Baker said she’s the mother of a kindergarten student, and she and the rest of the Quarantine the Quarantine group hope Johnstown will completely eliminate the remote-only learning option for the 2021-22 school year.