Haldane Budget Hearing Draws Little Interest

(L-R) Haldane trustees Mike Junjulas, Evan Schwartz and Gillian Thorpe and Superintendent Mark Villanti at the May 1 public hearing

Cyber security issue raised

By Michael Turton

Public apathy is often an indication of a community that lacks an interest in its own future. But the Wed. (May 2) meeting of the Haldane Board of Education may have been one of those rare occasions when the public could be forgiven for not attending. And stay away they did, from a public hearing on the proposed 2012-13 budget, which will go to the voters on May 15 for a decision on raising more than $17 million through local taxes.

That amount of money of course demands public scrutiny.  But here is the catch. The State of New York requires school districts to hold public hearings even though trustees across the state approved their proposed budgets on April 10. After that approval, no budget changes can be made before the public vote. Several public meetings were held prior to Haldane’s proposed budget being adopted by the Board of Education. “It really doesn’t make any sense. We can’t change anything at this point,” Haldane School Board President Joe Curto said, referring to the timing of the public hearing.

The four candidates, running for three school board trustee seats in an election also to be held on May 15, did attend the meeting. Evan Schwartz and Peter Henderson currently serve as trustees. Jon Champlin and Evelyn Carr-White are also running and were in the audience.

Budget Highlights
The meeting did give the school board an opportunity to review the basics of the budget for residents watching on Cable television at what was the last meeting of the board prior to the May vote. Superintendent Mark Villanti reviewed budget highlights – something he as done a number of times in recent weeks. “Without any doubt this was the most difficult budget I’ve had to prepare,” he said. “I’ve never had to use reserves and fund balances to this extent in order to present a responsible budget.” He repeated a theme that has been familiar at meetings this year. “This is more a revenue problem than a spending problem,” he said. State aid has been reduced by about $500,000 in each of the last two years and that trend is expected to continue.

“Anyone who doesn’t look at next year (2013-14) with a great sense of forbidding is mistaken,” Villanti said. “We received more [State] money five years ago than we do now.” The proposed budget will mean a tax rate increase of 1.95 percent. That translates into a total spending increase of $297,346. Villanti pointed out that $263,000 of that consists of costs over which the school board has no control – health care, staff pensions and special education.

Public education at risk?
While the Haldane Central School District has its financial challenges, it has not had to resort to layoffs. Other school districts are not faring as well. Villanti said that 90 positions might be lost in Kingston and 30 in Rondout Valley. “Public education is really at risk with cuts at that level,” he said.  Villanti is a very vocal supporter of public education. “In no country where there is a weak public education system is there a thriving economy,” he said, quoting a Wall Street Journal article from earlier that day. He also said that in some parts of the country, including Philadelphia, school districts are considering insolvency.

Trustees each backed the proposed budget. They also raised the specter of a contingency budget that would kick in automatically if the proposed budget were defeated twice at the polls. In a contingency budget no increase in spending is permitted. That would result in cuts of more than $400,000 in 2012-13. “We can get a second vote, if defeated,” Schwartz said. “But if the second vote doesn’t pass – were in trouble.” Trustee Mike Junjulas also reminded everyone that a contingency budget requires that the school close its doors at 3 p.m. – with no extra-curricular activities taking place. “There is no magic wand,” Curto said of the proposed budget. “We did our best to balance education and taxes. There are no gimmicks. These are solid fiscal strategies.”

Cyber security
In other business trustees accepted a letter from the Haldane Audit Committee recommending acceptance of the Risk Assessment Report from Cooper Niemann Inc., the company that conducts Haldane’s internal audit. Susan Peters, a CPA with the firm, reviewed the report which identified no serious issues with Haldane’s financial procedures. This is the first year of a five-year contract granted to Cooper Niemann. During the question period Curto asked Peters about cyber security and she responded that it is an issue that her firm is looking into more now. The topic struck a nerve with Villanti. “You’ve hit on a key subject. At the last school district I was with, the Russian mafia took two and one half million dollars,” he said.  “The district got most of the money back – but still ended up short a half a million dollars,” Villanti said.

Curto, who is stepping down as a trustee and president of the Haldane School Board, will be honored at its June 19 meeting.
Photo by M.Turton

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