Audit report, budget and capital improvements dominate meeting
By Michael Turton
School Board trustees with the Haldane Central School District had money on their minds at their meeting Tuesday, Oct. 16. The mood varied greatly, from a glowing auditor’s report, to a daunting first discussion of next year’s budget, to optimistic hopes for a proposed capital improvement project.
Haldane gets an ‘A’ from audit report
Scott Preusser, CPA with Claverock, N.Y.-based Raymond G. Preusser Certified Public Accountants, reviewed the independent audit that his firm conducted of the district’s financial practices for the year ending June 12, an undertaking that the district is required to complete annually.
Auditors’ formal reports are not known for describing their findings in layman’s terms. Preusser’s comment that the audit found “no significant deficiencies” is about as close as they ever get saying, “You’re doing a great job.” But in the less formal discussion with trustees, that point came out numerous times. “This is not a couple of days’ process,” Preusser said. “It began in March, and visits started in May.”
In describing Haldane’s overall approach to its finances, Preusser said, “You’re always looking down the road to see what could happen. That’s why (your) reserves are good.” He also made reference to the tough economic climate the district faces and that it is doing well under the circumstances. “State aid is going to be flat. Your revenue streams are very tight,” he said. “We like to see that you plan. … You’re proactive.”
When School Board President Michael Junjulas asked Preusser to give the district a financial grade, he replied, “Overall, not in CPA terms, you’re in an excellent position right now, (you get) an ‘A.’ What you are doing is what we like to see. You plan for the future.”
Tough budget talks ahead
Trustees will likely need those words of encouragement as they begin to think about crafting next year’s budget. They took the first tentative step in that direction when Superintendent of Schools Mark Villanti reviewed a short presentation laying out some of the fundamental facts.
The biggest challenge on the revenue side of the equation is the continued decline in state aid. In recent years that aid has been cut by $500,000 a year — a significant amount in a budget of approximately $21 million. And it may get worse. Asked what he expects the reduction in state aid to be for the upcoming year, Villanti replied that it might be closer to $600,000. “Functionally, we’re at a point … where we’re going to have to make cuts,” he said.
One area where the district can save money is through the retirement of veteran teachers at the top of the pay scale. They can be replaced by younger teachers who earn less. Villanti said that by December he should know which teachers will be retiring.
Wages are definitely on trustees’ minds as they think about the next budget. “We’ve been nibbling around the edges for places to cut that won’t have a significant impact,” Trustee Peter Henderson said. “I really think the only area (for cuts) is payroll.”
Henderson repeated an idea that he floated as part of his election campaign last spring — that if the budget picture does not improve, he will call for a voluntary wage freeze from the district’s two unions — teachers and support staff. The district does have an $800,000 fund balance, but trustees and Villanti both favor not touching it unless they absolutely have to. “It’s like a family’s savings,” Villanti said. “It’s not advisable to chew into that. It’s only for use in a worst-case scenario.”
“This is going to be an ongoing conversation,” Junjulas said. Trustees hope that part of that conversation will include New York State Assemblywoman Sandy Galef and State Senator Stephen Saland. Villanti intends to invite them to a meeting to discuss budget issues, including unfunded state mandates. “We’re not looking to rake anyone over the coals,” he said. “On a grand scale they may understand. But district to district, I don’t think they do.”
Video promotes capital improvements
Haldane has produced a 32-minute video supporting the $2 million capital improvement project to which voters will say either “yes” or “no” in a referendum on Nov. 13. If approved, major improvements will be undertaken to the main sports field on campus, including installation of artificial turf and the development of a practice and walking track around the edge of the field. In addition, improvements to the auditorium would be carried out along with replacement of aging lockers, some of which date back to the 1960s.
The video features testimonials from numerous students, teachers, administrators and others extolling the virtues of the proposed project. It is proposed that the project would be funded 34 percent from state aid, $600,000 from the district’s existing capital reserves, $300,000 from the district’s endowment fund, $200,000 from the PLAY Haldane community fundraising effort, and from the sale of the 10-acre James Pond property, valued at between $425,000 and $500,000. The sale of those lands must be approved as part of the referendum. Trustees have pledged from the outset that the project will not result in any increase in taxes.
Bullying leads to human tragedy
At the outset of the meeting Junjulas read a chilling account of the suicide death of Amanda Todd, a 15-year-old high school student in Port Coquitlam, British Columbia. Todd took her own life, in her family home, a month after posting a video on YouTube describing how she fell into depression after years of online bullying, blackmail, and being physically assaulted at school. When he finished reading the story, Junjulas said, “Bullying is a very real subject. It is not a joke. If you see bullying on Facebook, please report it.”