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Johnstown school district crafts new budget proposal

Johnstown school district crafts new budget proposal

If new plan fails to win voter approval, district would face flat budget, more cuts
Johnstown school district crafts new budget proposal
People cast votes on the school district's spending plan on May 15 at Johnstown High School.
Photographer: Marc Schultz/Daily Gazette Photographer

JOHNSTOWN -- The Johnstown School Board has crafted a new $35.7 million budget proposal with a smaller tax hike and more spending cuts in a bid to win 60 percent voter approval on June 19.

The Greater Johnstown School District's first 2018-19 budget was the only area school budget to be rejected by voters on May 15. The spending plan required at least 60 percent voter approval to override the New York state property tax cap; it garnered 51 percent approval.

The first budget would have increased the district's tax levy by 4.9 percent, while cutting $1 million, in an attempt to close a $3.5 million budget gap the district will face over the next four years. The new budget proposal reduces the tax levy increase to 3.7 percent, while cutting approximately $99,000 from the original spending plan. 

New spending cuts include: 

  • Elimination of a half-time technology teacher position through attrition at Knox Junior High School. Students will be allowed the option to fulfill the tech education credit with a gaming/coding class. Savings would amount to $29,435. 
  • Elimination of a half-time media specialist position. Savings would be $38,744. 
  • The district will combine its 7th- and 8th-grade modified sports teams, saving $15,000. 
  • Elimination of the marching band program, for a savings of $6,700.
  • Elimination of the school newspaper, to save $1,900.
  • Freezing salaries for both the superintendent and assistant superintendent for two years, for a savings of $4,000.  

The school board unanimously agreed to the additional cuts Tuesday night. After an executive session, the board announced it has renegotiated the contracts of Superintendent Patricia Kilburn and Assistant Superintendent Ruthie Cook to include the two-year pay freeze.

Kilburn said she has been talking to the board about a pay freeze for herself for several months, as part of cuts to administration spending. She said the district has also cut its athletic director position to a "0.4 position," effectively cutting James Robare's $89,800 salary by $53,000. Kilburn said the district won't know if Robare has accepted the reduced compensation until July, but if he doesn't take the pay cut, the district will hire a new athletic director. She said that, in recent years, the district also reduced the scope of its coordinator of curriculum and professional development position, currently held by Nicole Panton, to a 10-months-per-year job, reducing the pay by about $15,000. 

Kilburn said the board had planned to enact the pay freezes Tuesday and had included the executive session to do so in the board's agenda. 

"Clearly, we are in new financial waters, and we're trying to get everyone to think about how to make contributions to this effort, and unfortunately, some people are losing jobs and other people are considering new ways of getting old things done. I thought it would be a good way to set the tenor and the tone of objectives and serve as a role model in that," Kilburn said. 

The cuts in the original budget proposal remain in the revised spending plan: elimination of 13 staff positions; elimination of three sports teams (boys and girls tennis, freshman basketball and modified boys volleyball); elimination of alternate-day 7th-grade Spanish and kindergarten art; elimination of district-funded field trips and pre-kindergarten bus transportation; and a 30-percent cut to the budget for supplies.

Johnstown's budget troubles this year can be attributed to a roughly $1.9 million increase in year-over-year costs, about $1 million of which can be attributed to a spike in health insurance costs.

Kilburn said Johnstown has started an information campaign titled "Health Insurance 101," in an attempt to educate the district's employees about ways to reduce unnecessary usage of the district's insurance plans. She said the district is also looking to negotiate health insurance savings with its collective bargaining units. 

Johnstown is also in the midst of a $39.6 million capital project approved by voters in 2014. That project will be 95 percent reimbursed by New York state. The district's 2018-19 budget does not spend any money on debt service for the project, and the district has a reserve fund of $2 million that will be used to pay off about half of the district's contribution to the project. The capital project is sometimes cited by district residents as a symbol of spending problems at Johnstown. 

"Whenever you're asking people to approve a budget and you're saying, 'We don't have enough money right now,' and they're seeing a brand new gymnasium being put up, it tends to create a confusing message," Kilburn said. "Capital projects are paid for using separate funds, and we can't use capital project money to pay for our teachers and our programs and our schools." 

The capital project money, however, is calculated by the state into Johnstown's 2018-19 tax cap, counting as revenue for the district. Johnstown's 2018-19 tax cap is -2.5 percent, meaning the district would need 60 percent approval for any increase in the tax levy. Next year, the district will have a more typical tax cap. If the new 3.7 percent tax levy increase budget fails on June 19, the district will go to a contingency budget, which will mean the tax levy must remain flat.  

The school board has outlined the cuts that would result from a contingency budget -- another $308,000: 

  • Elimination of all modified sports. 
  • Elimination of bowling and cheerleading programs. 
  • Elimination of swim instruction.
  • Keeping the district's pool closed for the year, for a savings of $175,000. 
  • Elimination of 4th/5th grade band and choir
  • No new service contracts for the district for non-mandated items. 
  • No new equipment purchases. 
  • Elimination of all outside agency use of the district's facilities, unless all expenses for such use are prepaid.  

Kilburn said a contingency budget would put Johnstown further behind in its goal to fill the anticipated four-year $3.5 million budget gap. Johnstown currently has an $8.3 million tax levy, about 24 percent of its total spending plan. The district is also experiencing a long-term decline in student enrollment, which means smaller state aid increases in coming years.  

"We need [the tax levy] to be closer to the mid-$10 million range or $11 million. For example, Broadalbin-Perth is a pretty good match for our population and number of students, and their tax levy is like $15 million, and they're able to sustain their district in a better position as a result of that," she said. "Trying to ask Johnstown taxpayers to move that levy up by at least another $1 million, in the space of a year, would be incredibly difficult. That's why we're trying to work with the taxpayers to increase the levy to more sustainable levels."

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