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Johnstown school budget defeated

Johnstown school budget defeated

3-vote margin in favor, but 60 percent supermajority approval was required to override the state's property tax cap
Johnstown school budget defeated
Jim Mraz casts his vote for the Board of Education election and budget at Johnstown High School in Johnstown on Tuesday.
Photographer: Erica Miller/Gazette Photographer

JOHNSTOWN — The Greater Johnstown School District's 2019-20 school budget failed Tuesday night, not only eliminating all of the district's sports programs and high school electives, but also forcing the district to increase the number of staff members it needs to lay off.

While a slim, three vote margin — 1,150 yes votes to 1,147 no votes — was in favor of the district's $38.5 million budget with a property tax levy increase of 35 percent, a 60 percent supermajority approval was required to override the state's property tax cap.

Johnstown had proposed the 35 percent tax levy increase for this year, and a 15 percent increase next year as part of an attempt to preserve its high school and kindergarten programs. Both of those programs are now in danger of being eliminated over the next three years. 

"This is horrible, absolutely horrible. It's devastating for the city of Johnstown, not just the school. The whole city. I mean property values are going to drop," School board member Ron Beck said. "I mean, why move into Johnstown with a family? Your kids won't have opportunities for sports, or plays or musicals. This is horrible. I'm almost ashamed of being from Johnstown." 

Superintendent Patricia Kilburn said Johnstown will now put forward a 14.6 percent property tax levy increase June 18, which is the maximum increase the district is allowed under the state's property tax cap. Typically, the state tax cap is around 2 percent, however Johnstown's increase for 2019-20 is higher thanks to exempted debt service payments on the district's recent $39.6 million capital project.

The capital project, which was approved by voters and included upgrades to the district's sports facilities, was among the reasons district resident Matthew Childs voted against the budget.

More results from Capital Region school board elections and budget votes:

"Because the property taxes are high enough already. The proposed increase is outrageous. They shouldn't have wasted the money on this obscene addition they put on that lights the sky all night and day. They had their money, they spent it," Childs said.  

At the time of the original capital project bond vote, 96 percent of the spending was reimbursable by New York state. A property revaluation and rising incomes in the city of Johnstown has since dropped the reimbursement rate to 90 percent. 

Kilburn said in order to fund nonmandated programs at Johnstown, including high school and kindergarten, the district will spend more money from its reserves, which total about $7 million. She said the rejected budget already included eight staff reductions and now requires the district to cut an additional $1.6 million. It plans to do so by eliminating all sports, extracurricular activities and high school electives. She said there will need to be more staff cuts, although it has not yet been determined how many.  

"More than two," she said. 

District resident Mark Viscosi, who said he does not have children in the district, said he voted yes. 

"I don't like the raise, but I don't want to see sports go away," Viscosi said.

District resident Steven Dick, who has one child attending the district, said the threat of losing the district's sports teams was also a key factor in why he voted yes. 

"I think it's better for the kids to have something productive to do than to have it taken away and have them find their own things to do after school," he said. 

Kilburn said Johnstown's school board will be setting fundraising parameters for how the public might be able to raise funding to restore programming. 

Beck said the bill to restore sports or extracurriculars will be hundreds of thousands of dollars and would need to be raised by at least August. 

"People can't just raise funds for the fall, and then try for the winter or spring. It doesn't work that way, and we would need to ask coaches to work for free," he said. 

More results from Capital Region school board elections and budget votes:

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