JOHNSTOWN — The Greater Johnstown School District adopted a $37.87 million 2019-20 budget with a 14.6 percent tax levy increase on Thursday.
The budget includes $825,000 in spending cuts and a plan to allow district residents to restore sports and some extracurricular programming — if district residents can raise enough money to pay for them.
The 14.6 percent tax levy increase is the maximum allowed under New York state's property tax cap, which means a 51 percent majority vote on June 18 will approve the budget.
Johnstown's initial $38.5 million budget carried a 35-percent tax levy increase aimed at reducing most of the district's $4.3 million budget shortfall, but that proposal failed to gain the 60 percent supermajority needed on May 21. A record number of district residents turned out. The budget failed 1,150 yes votes to 1,147 no votes, a scant 3-vote majority approving the plan.
Joyce Caputo, a former school district superintendent and former Johnstown principal, praised the board for offering the children and families of the district hope of maintaining a robust educational program. She warned district residents that if the budget is defeated, the district would be forced to operate using a contingency budget.
"A contingency budget takes away everything," she said. "If you are going to speak and be a 'yes' vote, if you're going to take pride and say yes we are going to have a school district for our children, make sure when you hear rumors [of a no vote], ask them to call [Superintendent Patricia Kilburn] and she will answer their questions," Caputo said.
District resident Bion Soblosky, who owns Bio-Tech Mechanical Plumbing and Heating, said he'll vote against the budget no matter what. He said many of his customers are on a fixed income of less than $30,000 and a 14.6-percent increase is too much. He said it's unfair for Johnstown taxpayers to be compared to property taxpayers in the Broadalbin-Perth School District because that district has high-priced, lake-front camps, some assessed as high as $4.5 million.
"It's too big of a hit, simply that. People here don't get raises of 14.6 percent," he said.
The tax cap budget approved by the board Thursday night cuts an additional $825,000 in spending, mostly from staff reductions, which included 11 layoffs, five resignations and three retirements.
Positions eliminated were: four elementary teachers, one physical education position, one special education position, two science positions, two math positions, two English positions, one music teacher, one teachers’ assistant position, one technology network administrator, one facilities director, one maintenance position, one custodial worker, and one business office clerical position.
"I've already told those people they don't have a job anymore," Kilburn said.
Kilburn said the district was not able to eliminate all of its high school elective classes in one year because to do so would have meant preventing some students from graduating on time. She said the three-year plan proposed by the district includes adopting a career pathways high school program for graduation, which shares some similarities to P-Tech alternative high schools.
Johnstown would create five programs that students would choose from as they pursue their high school diploma and a future work career:
• Comprehensive Advanced Placement
• Liberal Arts, a humanities AP course load
• Work-based Learning, including work-based math and other classes geared toward future employment
• Career and Tech Service Industries
• Career and Technical
According to information presented to the public by the board Thursday, and at past budget meetings, Johnstown needs to raise its total property tax levy by 26.5 percent by the passage of the 2020-21 budget in order to keep the district's high school and kindergarten programs, which are non-mandated.
Johnstown's budget woes are mainly attributable to the board's past practice of having tax increases that were too small, to the rising cost of salaries and benefits for personnel over the past decade and to declining student population, which has led to capped state aid.
Johnstown's total school tax levy is currently $8.6 million, while the regional average is $12.3 million. Johnstown's local property tax spending per pupil is in the bottom 10 percent for school district's in New York state.
Kilburn presented the board with a plan for school district residents to raise the $311,890 needed to keep all of its athletic programs, minus a $200,000 contribution from the district for transportation costs.
Johnstown district residents will be asked to raise $89,310 for its fall sports, with $73,340 going to varsity, $30,230 to junior varsity and $30,300 for modified. The winter sports total would be $89,310 and for spring it would be $88,710, both with similar breakdowns for varsity, JV and modified.
The board also approved a plan for "tiered" athletic fundraising if residents fail to raise enough money. The tiered plan would prioritize team sports over sports that primarily include individual competition. The backup athletic fundraising plan passed, but not without dissent.
"Even cross country running could be considered a team sport," board member Ron Beck said.
Other restrictions on sports would include: day games only, modified home games only [pending Foothills Council approval] and requests for more home games from opposing schools.
The district will also put forward $33,000 to fund advisers for each graduating class, Student Council, JHS yearbook, Knox Student Council, Odyssey of the Mind, a treasurer for extracurricular funds, and winter guard. District residents will be asked to raise money for winter guard and the school's musical.
Kilburn said the tax cap budget spends $2.3 million of Johnstown's unrestricted reserves, leaving the district with only $2.7 million left it can apply to its general fund expenses. The district would still have $3.06 million in reserves restricted for specific purposes.
Some district residents have asked the board why it can't spend all of its reserves to maintain programming for as long as possible.
Rich Timbs, Johnstown's budget consultant, said there is no law against a school district spending its money to the point of bankruptcy. He said it would be unwise for the board to put the district in that position because "no one knows what would happen."
Timbs said it's possible New York state could institute a financial control board or something similar with the power to impose drastic changes at the district.