NISKAYUNA -- Niskayuna school district residents are looking at a bit of tough medicine in next school year's budget as district officials put together a proposal that includes a tax-cap-busting levy increase and a loss of over two dozen staff positions.
The latest version of the still-changing budget calls for a 3.76 percent increase to the tax levy – the total amount the district collects in local property taxes – and eliminates nearly 25 staff positions. The levy increase in the latest proposal, which Superintendent Cosimo Tangorra Jr. outlined during a virtual board meeting Tuesday, would top the district 2.15 percent tax levy limit and require 60 percent approval when the budget goes up for voter approval. The tax cap formula is set by state law.
Tangorra didn't specify what positions would be eliminated or detail most of the budget reductions included in the proposal he presented to the board, but he promised to return with more details this month, as well as other budget scenarios. Other scenarios could look at how high of a levy increase would be needed to retain all staff positions.
School board members on Tuesday urged Tangorra to review BOCES expenses, outside contracts and any other potential budget reductions that could spare staff positions. As the board wrapped up a discussion of the situation during Tuesday's virtual meeting, board member Rosemarie Perez Jaquith summed up the sentiment of much of the board.
“Save more jobs,” she implored Tangorra.
Tangorra said he and other district officials had already pored through the budget to find savings but added that staff cuts were inevitable.
“I think people have to come to terms with the fact that [staff] reductions are inevitable,” Tangorra told the school board. “I don't want to leave anyone with any false hope that we can find a solution that gets us to the cap without any reduction in workforce. I don't want anyone to believe that; it would be wrong and misleading.”
The district faced a tough budget picture even before the COVID-19 pandemic overturned daily life across the state. In late-February, district officials told the school board that health insurance costs were running $760,000 higher than at the same time last year. At the board's March 9 meeting, Tangorra outlined a budget shortfall topping $2.7 million; and at the March 24 meeting, he told board members the budget would likely include between 20 and 40 staff cuts.
The state budget, which effectively froze state aid to districts and opened the door to mid-year budget cuts, further exacerbated the district's fiscal challenges. Tangorra presented the board with nearly $2 million less in expenditures than what he presented on March 24, an indication of the extent of the budget cuts for which he has already planned.
Before the pandemic further tightened the district's budget, Tangorra said, the district's tax levy increased an average of 1.5 percent over the last five years -- the last three tax levy increases, though, have all topped 2 percent. Meanwhile, the district's overall budget has grown an average of 2.5 percent each of the last five years, including increases of over 3 percent each of the last two years. Without state aid to close that gap, the district has to raise local taxes, cut costs or both.
“We are in this situation because revenue is simply not keeping pace with our cost drivers,” Tangorra said.
Those cost drivers in Niskayuna and districts across the state are primarily personnel costs: Going into next year's budget, the district faces $1.36 million in contractual salary increases; $400,000 in new pension costs, and; $1.72 million in rising health insurance costs.
The district's draft budget also includes spending down an extra $335,000 in reserves, a move Tangorra had cautioned against until recently, noting how things have changed dramatically.
But Tangorra and other officials said it was important to keep an eye on the long-term as well. That $335,000 will show up in the district's budget gap next year, and the impact of the pandemic and economic downturn could affect state aid for years to come.
“This is likely to have a multi-year impact on school districts, very similar to the impact of the Great Recession,” Tangorra said at Tuesday's meeting.
District officials are continuing to search the budget for other reductions, and board members instructed Tangorra to return next week with more details about what exactly has been cut in the draft budget and how much in new taxes would be needed to spare all district staff.
Tangorra said he was opening up discussions with the district's different bargaining units to see if they would be willing to find ways to save money through changes to contracts – a teacher pay freeze, for instance, may save some positions. Tangorra promised to take any pay reductions that he asks of others.
The board also approved a retirement incentive that could help spare some layoffs by instead eliminating positions through attrition.
“I think we also need to look at what it would take to keep every single job,” Board President Howard Schlossberg said at Tuesday's meeting. “I know that will go above 4 percent, but we need to know that number.”