For the first time in years, Karen Mettler helped draft a school budget mostly free of tax hikes or deep cuts to programs and staff.
“It was nice,” she said, “not having to worry about where to find the money for all the little extra stuff we wanted to do.”
Mettler, the former district treasurer at Oppenheim-Ephratah, was appointed to the same post at the newly merged Oppenheim-Ephratah–St. Johnsville Central School District at the Board of Education’s first meeting late last week. Shortly after her appointment, the board approved an $18.1 million proposed budget for 2013-14, set for a public vote May 21.
Not only does the budget avoid program cuts, it includes a handful of new positions, expanded class offerings and the return of the driver education program — all without raising the tax levy.
The growth is made possible by $1.5 million in state merger incentives. When the districts approved a merger late last year, the state guaranteed the new district $14 million in extra aid over 15 years, the boost diminishing through later years.
HFM BOCES District Superintendent Patrick Michel, Mettler, and other school money managers did much of the work of drawing up the budget.
Michel called his use of the extra state aid a “one-third, one-third, one-third” plan: Part went to stabilizing the tax levy, part to improving programs, and part toward savings.
If approved by voters next month, the budget would make no changes to the existing tax levy in 2013-14. The proposed $4.8 million levy was generated by simply adding Oppenheim-Ephratah and St. Johnsville’s 2012-13 levies together. While it is not changing, the property tax rates will change — they will be higher or lower in at least some of the various municipalities making up the district, depending on equalization rates set by the state.
The budget would also commit funds for English language and math coaches, a new business teacher and added kindergarten and library staff.
Specifically, Michel was excited about the purchase of nearly $450,000 in computer hardware and software.
“This is an opportunity to reinvent the old industrial education model that doesn’t work,” he said. Through expanded technology, the district will eventually be able to move past the traditional school day, divided by bells, to a more sustainable plan involving flexible distance learning. There is also money to buy two new buses.
Both the technology and transportation purchases are eligible for 90 percent state reimbursement. “We’d be foolish not to take advantage of the reimbursement aid,” Michel said.
Roughly one third of the extra state funds will go into the bank, with $480,000 put aside for when the state money runs out in 2027.
“The new district should develop a plan to annually add to its reserves to offset the future loss of state merger aid and other revenues,” he said. “By using this money wisely now, we can build the foundation of a sustainable school district offering a 21st century education for its students.”
In other business, Susanne Sammons was elected board president and Renee Swartz vice president. Both were voted onto the board by the public for three-year terms.
District residents will vote on the proposed budget May 21. Polls will be open 12-8 p.m. at the David H. Robbins Elementary School in St. Johnsville.