Facing an approximately $3 million budget gap, the Johnstown School Board Thursday night voted to adopt a 2018-19 budget that increases the district’s tax levy by 4.9 percent, while also cutting 13 staff positions, including three sports teams.
The total amount of services being cut from the $35.7 million budget comes to $1 million. Voters will decide on the budget on May 15.
The budget plan increases year-over-year spending by 5.46 percent, about $1.9 million, despite a laundry list of spending cuts. Among the cuts: 13 staff positions; elimination of three sports teams (boys and girls tennis, freshman basketball and modified boys volleyball); elimination of alternate-day seventh-grade Spanish and kindergarten art; the elimination of district-funded field trips and pre-kindergarten busing transportation; and a 30-percent cut to the budget for supplies.
Greater Johnstown School District Superintendent Patricia Kilburn said the cost increases and the budget gap can largely be attributed to a more than $1 million increase in personnel costs, specifically salaries and benefits, and to the slow growth in New York state education aid. She said Johnstown’s operational costs are growing faster than the district’s tax revenues, which have prompted the district to craft a long-term plan that would include additional tax increases and possibly more program cuts.
Kilburn said the need for Johnstown to cut staff became apparent about eight weeks ago when the district completed its five-year projection of costs, future revenues and likely declining student enrollment. She said a similar five-year projection was not done in prior years at Johnstown because of uncertainty in state education aid after the 2008 financial crisis.
“What we’re trying to do is something strategic, looking at reductions this year, balanced with a tax levy increase,” she said.
“We’re asking for moderate tax levy increases for five years in a row, and we aren’t ruling out that there may be future [program] reductions that may have to occur. So we’re talking about a five-year change and shift in schools, and how we fund them.”
Johnstown’s proposed budget breaks the district’s state mandated tax levy cap by a wide margin. New York state caps increases to local government and school district tax levies to 2 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower, with a number of exempted spending items, including debt service. This year the baseline property tax cap for school districts is 2 percent, but every district’s individual tax cap varies by a complex formula.
Due to debt costs, Johnstown’s tax cap for 2018-19 is -2.5 percent.
“The proposed levy increase of 4.9 percent, because it’s higher than -2.5 percent, we have to get a super-majority in order to pass the budget. That would be 60 percent of taxpayers voting yes for the budget,” Kilborn said.
District officials estimate the typical tax increase on a home assessed at $100,000 would be about $71.50 per year. Tax rates for the municipalities within the school district are based on equalization rates and aren’t typically released until over the summer.
If less than 60 percent of Johnstown school district voters approve the budget on May 15, Johnstown will go to a contingency budget, which would increase the tax levy by 3.8 percent and increase year-over-year spending by $1.3 million.
“In the six years that I’ve served, this is probably the most difficult issue that we’ve dealt with, and we have looked at everything and we have to move forward as well. We can’t cut everything, and it is going to be difficult, but when the word contingency comes up, that would be devastating, so we do need support,” said school board member Board Kathryn Zajicek.
Kilborn said nearly all of the staff members being eliminated have been notified, with two positions not yet decided by the school board. She offered a breakdown of the known staff cuts: one Spanish teacher, one social studies teacher, one math teacher, one elementary teacher, one business office position eliminated through attrition, creation of two “shared” positions within the technology and music departments, a half-time position eliminated through attrition, one secretary position, and a floating nurse position.
Pleasant Avenue first-grade teacher Nancy Lisicki, president of the Johnstown Teacher’s Association, said her union is “working with the administration and the school board to continue to provide a dynamite program for the students that we serve, that’s our priority.”
Kilborn said one area of possible future savings for the district might come from changes to the district’s health insurance costs, if those changes can be negotiated with the district’s unions.
School Board President Kathy Dougherty said that she believes no one on the board feels good about the adopted spending plan, but that it is necessary for the district to “right size” its staff in the face of rising costs and declining enrollment.
“While we would love to retain all of our employees, given our financial challenges that is not a fiscally responsible position,” she said. “We have also at this time committed to more frequent reviews of our staffing needs, looking for additional sources of revenue, increasing our school budget advocacy work with our state lawmakers, investigating sharing staff with other educational organizations, and working with our bargaining units to make sure we are performing all of our due diligence with respect to revenues and expenditures.”