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Johnstown district lays out dire budget scenario: 50% levy hike or major cuts

Johnstown district lays out dire budget scenario: 50% levy hike or major cuts

School district continues to lose students
Johnstown district lays out dire budget scenario: 50% levy hike or major cuts
Residents listen to a presentation on the Johnstown School District budget.
Photographer: Jason Subik/Gazette Reporter

JOHNSTOWN -- A 50-percent tax levy increase was among the options discussed Monday night at the Greater Johnstown School District budget forum, as school administrators laid out a scenario they described as "dire."

Ruthie Cook, Johnstown's assistant superintendent for business, said that in order for the district to maintain the same programming it is offering for the 2018-19 school year, the district will need to increase spending by $4.3 million. If all of the increase was raised from the district's total property tax levy, currently $8.6 million, a 50-percent hike would be needed. 

Alternatives to the increase include spending down the district's dwindling reserves, or elimination or substantial cuts to non-mandated programs such as kindergarten, extracurricular sports or high school electives. 

"Things are pretty dire," Superintendent Patricia Kilburn said. 

Last year was the first year Johnstown school district voters ever voted to break the state-mandated property tax cap, but only after voting down the district's first attempt at a 4.9 percent tax levy hike. Due to a quirk in the formula Johnstown had a "negative property tax cap," which meant even a zero percent increase would have required 60 percent voter approval.

Seventy percent of voters -- a 525 yes vote margin -- ultimately approved the district's second budget,  which had a 3.7 percent levy increase. 

Not all district residents were pleased by that.

"When we vote for president, we only vote once, right? Why do we keep voting on the school budget?" asked one district resident Monday at the budget forum.  

More from this week: Our top stories March 2-8, 2019

Kilburn said state law dictates how the school budget process works. She said the state has also elected to hold Johnstown "harmless" with respect to state foundation aid despite the district's dwindling student population.

She said since Johnstown decided to close its Jansen Avenue Elementary school in 2009, the district has lost about another 330 students, the equivalent of another entire elementary school.

School district officials pointed out that Johnstown's property tax levy only pays for 28 percent of the district's total costs, compared to the regional average for school districts, which is 37 percent. Johnstown would have to increase its total property tax levy to $12.3 million to get to the regional average. Johnstown's per student spending is also in the bottom 10 percent of all New York state schools. 

For the first time, district officials offered a comprehensive breakdown of some of its component costs. Kilburn said the breakdown took months to determine, but the district did so after its capital project financial adviser Rick Timbs suggested the breakdown would be helpful to voters. 

The district's 2018-19 budget costs break down like this: 
• Operations and core programs grades 1-8: $31.6 million 
• Core High School programming: $4.4 million 
• Secondary election choices: $951,000 
• Kindergarten: $557,000 
• Elementary arts & academic supports: $363,000 
• Athletics: $598,000
• Extracurriculars: $102,000 

The district also provided a breakdown of what a 50-percent tax levy hike would cost taxpayers with a home assessed at $100,000: Basic STAR, $526 (Johnstown city), $849 (Johnstown, town); Enhanced STAR $249 (city), $572 (town); No STAR, $751.46 (city) $1,075 (town). 

Members of the public were asked to break into groups to contemplate cuts to programs or other options. One of the options discussed in the "Gold Group" was shutting down the district's high school and "outsourcing" its students to another district.

District resident Rob Johnson said he was a part of the discussions when the district closed Jansen, and a plan was considered then to close two elementary schools. He said maybe the district should have done so.

"We don't need to spend what the other districts like Saratoga spend. Somebody has to be the bad guy," he said.

Johnstown resident Dave D'Amore expressed the opposite view. He said Johnstown has fallen behind districts like the Broadalbin-Perth School District, and it needs to enhance programming or continue to watch more affluent families flee the district.

Johnstown district officials will review feedback from the budget forum at the school board's Business Meeting & Budget Workshop Thursday in the JHS Library at 6:30 p.m. The annual school budget vote this year is May 21. 

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