JOHNSTOWN — The Greater Johnstown School District's budget did not pass Tuesday, failing to get the 60 percent voter approval needed to break the district's New York state property tax cap.
Johnstown needed 540 yes votes out of 900 votes cast, but got 461 in favor and 439 against, a slim 51 percent yes-majority, not enough to break the state tax cap.
Johnstown's $35.7 million 2018-19 budget plan carried a 5.46 percent tax levy, the largest in the Capital Region, to help the district fill a projected $3.5 million budget gap. The district's tax cap was minus 2.5 percent, thanks to a quirk in New York state's tax cap formula, so any tax levy increase over 0 percent required at least 60 percent voter approval.
School Board President Kathy Dougherty said the board will closely examine the voter exit surveys filled out Tuesday, and use that to help decide how to proceed. Johnstown can prepare a new budget and put it in front of voters on June 19. Dougherty said the school board will likely modify the Tuesday's budget proposal rather than resubmitting the same plan.
"I think the fact that we got 51 percent yes is encouraging, so we need to find out what the voters are looking for us to do, and then we will meet soon and make a decision about our next step. I don't want to speak on behalf of the full board because I don't have the authority to do that, but I'm confident in the board's ability to make a good decision and move forward," she said. "I would think there will be tweaks. Sending out the same budget with these numbers would not be fiscally responsible and respect the will of the voters. I think we need to look at what the surveys say and get an indication of the programs and personnel that we can manage to do without the following year, and hope to get a positive vote the second time."
Although it increased the district's tax levy, the proposed 2018-19 budget budget already included about $1 million in spending cuts. Cuts included: 13 staff positions; three sports teams (boys and girls tennis, freshman basketball and modified boys volleyball); alternate-day seventh-grade Spanish and kindergarten art; district-funded field trips; pre-kindergarten busing transportation and a 30-percent cut to the budget for supplies.
Despite those cuts, overall year-over-year spending was set to increase by about $1.9 million, with a major share of the increase coming from a $1 million spike in health insurance costs.
Johnstown is also projecting the need for similar 5 percent tax levy increases for each of the next four budget cycles to help close the budget gap. District officials have said one of the central problems Johnstown faces is a dwindling student population, which has led to flat New York state "foundation aid."
Dougherty said it was important for the school board to be upfront with district voters about the projected need for tax levy increases over multiple years.
"People need to be able to plan. It's really important that people not be surprised at these kinds of things. That was an important message that we as a community needed to send, and this is also a message that we are getting from our voters, that we didn't do what 60 percent needed us to do, and we need to listen to that," she said.
If voters on June 19 again turn down the budget, the district will be required to have a flat year-over-year tax levy, so no increase. Dougherty said that would require the school board to find between $500,000 and $600,000 in additional spending cuts. Under a contingency budget, Johnstown would also be limited in what it can spend money on, such as community activities on district property.
Dougherty said she isn't certain additional staff layoffs will be necessary under a contingency budget.
"It will be a combination of programs, services, staffing, equipment, the low hanging fruit we've already picked. We will have to be very creative about what we are doing and being able to continue to service the kids," she said.