The Greater Johnstown School District voted unanimously Wednesday night to adopt a $38.5 million budget plan for the 2019-20 academic year that would raise its tax levy by 35 percent in a desperate bid to maintain current programming levels at its schools.
Johnstown faces a $4.3 million budget deficit which threatens to force the school district to close its high school and eliminate all of its nonmandated programs over a three-year period, including all varsity and modified sports, all extracurricular activities and its kindergarten programs.
The proposed 35 percent increase would raise Johnstown's total property tax levy by $3 million, increasing it from $8.6 million to $11.6 million, still about $1 million less than the regional average school property tax levy of $12.3 million.
The proposed 35 percent tax levy increase does not equate to a 35 percent tax rate increase. While residential property tax rates, which factor in equalization rates for the different municipalities within the school district, are not released until August, they are nearly always less than levy percentage increases.
The Johnstown school district provided a breakdown of what the proposed increase would cost taxpayers with a home assessed at $100,000:
- Basic STAR Johnstown city: $372-$516 per year, $31-$43 per month, $1 to $1.42 per day.
- Basic STAR Johnstown town: $600-$768 per year, $50-$64 per month, $1.63 to $2.11 per day.
- Enhanced STAR Johnstown city: $180-$504 per year, $15-$42 per month, 48 cents to $1.39 per day.
- Enhanced STAR Johnstown town; $408-$756, $34-$63 per month, $1.10 to $2.08 per day.
- No STAR Johnstown city: $528 per year, $44 per month, $1.44 per day.
- No STAR Johnstown Town: $780 per year, $65 per month, $2.13 per day.
Johnstown's tax cap for the 2019-20 school year is 14.6 percent, much higher than the typical 2 percent increase, due to exempted spending tied to the district's recent capital project. A budget within the tax cap would require 51 percent voter approval.
Last year 60 percent of Greater Johnstown School District voters rejected a 4.9 percent hike, but 70 percent of voters agreed to a 3.7 percent increase in a second vote.
If the 35 percent tax levy increase fails, the Johnstown School Board will have a perilous choice before it: either place a tax cap budget with a 14.6 percent tax levy increase before voters, which includes the elimination of all varsity and modified sports, put a lesser increase in front of voters which would necessitate deeper spending cuts, or attempt a larger than 14 percent increase in a bid to maintain more programming.
A tax cap budget tax levy increase of 14.6 percent would only decrease the district's budget deficit by about $1 million, forcing the district to make $1.61 million in spending cuts, including: all varsity and modified sports teams (saving $567,530); all high school electives ($951,000); and all extracurricular activities ($94,000).
If the second vote fails, Johnstown is forced into a contingency budget with a zero percent tax levy increase.
Superintendent Patricia Kilburn warned that if Johnstown voters reject the tax cap 14.6 percent hike, the district will be forced to use $2.7 million of its remaining $3.6 million in order to keep the district's kindergarten programs and high school open. She said a contingency budget would force a scenario where Johnstown would need to increase its total tax levy by at least 18 percent next year or close its high school and eliminate kindergarten within two years.
Scott Miller, a former Greater Johnstown School District Board of Education president, spoke during the public comment portion of Wednesday's meeting. Miller defended the past school board's decision to spend down its fund balance in order to maintain lower taxes.
"We used to get nailed every year by the New York state Comptroller's office for having too much fund balance," he said.
District officials have attributed the funding crisis to three main factors: flat state aid due to a decline of about 330 students over the past 10 years, annual cost increases to salaries and benefits due to public employee contract obligations and inadequate tax levy increases to keep pace with the district's cost increases over the past decade. District officials have pointed out Johnstown's local property tax levy contribution per student is in the bottom 10 percent of New York state school districts.
Miller said Johnstown's personnel costs equal 78 percent of the school budget. He said the school board needs to negotiate a better deal with its public employee unions, specifically requiring new hires to pay a substantially higher portion of their health insurance costs. He suggested new hires should pay between 25 and 35 percent of their health insurance premium costs.
"It's time to start cutting," Miller said.
In its 2019-20 school budget fact sheet, the district outlined the $1.1 million in cuts made during the 2018-19 school year, which included 13 positions, transportation for pre-k and field trips, extracurricular activities and sports with low participation and the reduction of its $90,000 per year athletic director James Robare to a 40 percent position with an annual salary of $37,000.
Robare resigned last week.
School board President Kathy Dougherty said the district has not decided whether or not to fill the 40 percent athletic director job. She said if district voters do not approve a budget funding extracurricular sports, the part-time athletic director position would have nothing to do.
"At this point [that job had been entirely focused on extracurricular sports], 60 percent of it has been parceled out to other administrators," she said.
While Kilburn has said the proposed $38.5 million 2019-20 budget will also include about $500,000 in spending cuts, she said she can't describe what those cuts will be due to "personnel issues."
Wednesday night the board accepted the early retirement of Ann Stefka as administrative secretary and the resignations of Sara Lewis as Director of Special Education, Pupil Services and Special Programs, elementary teacher Jessica Porter and physical education teacher Justin Roehl.
While Dougherty said the resignations are not tied to the $500,000 in cuts, she said the district is uncertain whether those positions will be filled.
School district voters will decide whether to approve the 2019-20 budget proposal on May 21.