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With budget deal done, districts look to finalize own spending plans

With budget deal done, districts look to finalize own spending plans

With budget deal done, districts look to finalize own spending plans
Schenectady's Mont Pleasant Middle School
Photographer: Gazette file photo

CAPITAL REGION -- School districts across the region are working to finalize their 2019-2020 academic year budgets in the coming days and weeks to put up for voter approval next month.

With state lawmakers approving a budget over the weekend, district officials returned to work Monday with their best sense yet of how much state aid they can count on as they create their spending plans.

The region's city districts – Schenectady, Albany, Troy and Amsterdam – benefited the most from the state's allotment of new foundation aid funding, the state's core funding formula used to allocate aid to districts. Schenectady City School District Superintendent Larry Spring plans to propose a budget to the school board Wednesday and expects a few million dollars' worth of new investments to be included.

While many education advocates had hoped lawmakers would boost foundation aid by over $1 billion, the final deal lifted the aid by over $600 million. But some new policies, and some averted proposals, were cheered by many in the education community.

Lawmakers rejected the governor's proposal to consolidate a litany of expense categories -– specific expense types districts get reimbursed by the state for – into one category. They also pared back a proposal that would have forced certain districts to demonstrate they were focusing dollars on their poorest schools or risk state action. Ultimately, they approved a measure that will ask districts to report how they are spending money in their neediest schools without the risk of state action.

Lawmakers also authorized districts to establish a reserve fund dedicated to annual teacher pension contributions. District officials have said the teacher pension reserve will help even out a budget line item that can fluctuate dramatically from year to year.

“That's a big breakthrough, it's something we have been asking for for more than 10 years,” Cobleskill-Richmondville Superintendent Carl Mummenthey said Monday of the teachers' pension reserve.

Mummenthey said depending on how much money the district ends the current school year with, he may recommend the board establish the pension fund as soon as possible, expressing an expectation that those contribution rates will rise over the coming years.

As district officials finalize a budget proposal, he said they are looking to close a remaining budget gap of just over $100,000 while keeping the tax levy increase to 1.9 percent. The district budget will restore a full-time physics instructor and reassign an elementary classroom teacher to focus on behavioral support. He said he had hoped more of the foundation aid increase would have been directed to districts like Cobleskill.

“We were hopeful the Legislature would have restored a little more than they did on foundation aid,” Mummenthey said. “It's a pretty lean budget.”

In Amsterdam, where on Monday longtime Capital Region educator Ray Colucciello took over as interim superintendent after Vicky Ramos started as a BOCES superintendent in western New York, district Business Manager Kim Brumley said the state aid totals came in higher than she had expected.

District officials are circling in on a budget to add 10 new professional staff and six non-instructional positions. The positions include a social worker, guidance counselor, English as a second language instructor, school psychologist and others. The district is also looking to put $1 million into a capital reserve fund to help with bus purchases in the coming years. District officials have been looking to spend down its end-of-year fund balance, which the state comptroller has said is too high.

Brumley on Monday said she had planned on using over $4 million of the district's $13 million fund balance to help cover expenses in next year's budget. The final state aid numbers will help the district pull back on how much of the fund balance is used to cover expenses, Brumley said.

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