Cuts in personnel may be inevitable
There was little in the way of new information about the 2013-14 budget at the Tuesday meeting (Feb. 5) of the Haldane School Board, and the only new twist was not good news. Trustees recently learned that in addition to a reduction of $518, 010 in state funding through the Gap Elimination Adjustment, a move that was expected, Haldane is also being hit by an additional cut of $136,380 in “High Tax Aid” — a decrease that no one saw coming. Assuming that the tax levy increase is kept less than the state-imposed cap, trustees will have to make cuts of just under $400,000 before presenting a budget for a public vote in May.
School Board President Michael Junjulas and at least one trustee have already made it clear they won’t support a tax levy increase that exceeds the cap, a scenario that is theoretically possible but which requires a 60 percent “yes” vote from local taxpayers. A projected increase in the tax levy of $631,453, the maximum allowable to keep the school district within the state cap, would result in an estimated tax increase of $242 for a home with an assessed value of $500,000.
The actual tax rate is not known until mid-summer. The tax rate increase has been less than 2 percent in the four previous budget years. Residents actually vote on the school district’s spending plan — not a compete budget. The actual budget is finalized once all revenues, including property taxes, are known. In recent years that has often resulted in a small decrease in the final tax rate.
“It really caught us by surprise. It felt like a sucker punch,” Superintendent of Schools Mark Villanti said in commenting on the decrease in High Tax Aid. “We had no indication that would be reduced. That’s tough to deal with on top of everything else,” he said.
Sending a message
“We were really quite shocked,” Trustee Peter Henderson said, regarding the additional decrease in state aid. But he stuck to his guns about keeping any tax increase below the cap. “I won’t (vote to) go over the cap,” he said. “We need to be consistent in our position,” he added, in what may have been a subtle message to his fellow trustees and Villanti, who, earlier in the meeting, said that while he would not recommend exceeding the cap, “that has come up.”
Henderson, who said he is very concerned because this is not a one-year budget crisis, also sent a message to teachers and support staff. “Many in the community feel lucky to have a job. A zero percent increase means they still have a job,” he said. When he ran for the school board last year, his platform included a pledge to ask teachers to take a voluntary pay freeze if the economic challenges the board faces do not improve.
Junjulas was also clear where he stands. “We want to be below the cap if possible. We really need a 5-0 vote,” indicating to trustees that if their vote as a board to keep the tax increase below the cap is split, it would send a mixed message to residents. “I really don’t think (a tax increase in excess of the cap) would pass — and I don’t think a second vote would pass,” he said. If taxpayers vote “no” on successive budget referenda, the district is required by law to adopt a “contingency budget,” which not only limits the amount of spending but gives trustees very little discretion as to how funds can be spent.
Personnel cuts likely
“It is important to be as open as possible with everyone,” Vilanti said, alluding to ongoing talks with the district’s two unions. “There will be some cuts … most will have to come from personnel,” he said. “There’s no simple solution. The hard part is this isn’t a one-year thing.” Villanti said he will present more specific details in March.
Henderson identified another aspect of the current budget situation that he finds troublesome. “Everything other than personnel has been frozen. Is that realistic?” he asked. “There is a real need for (funding) professional development, and we have to think about increasing the number of hours for information technology support. And there are a number of other priority items,” he said.
Henderson again went back to the challenge of controlling the annual increase in the cost of personnel. Wages and benefits make up about 75 to 80 percent of Haldane’s total budget of approximately $22 million. “The only way is to bind it (wages) to revenue. I’m for avoiding layoffs. It’s going to be a difficult conversation, but we have to have it.”
Former Haldane School Board President Joe Curto attended the meeting and encouraged trustees to get the public more involved with the budget process. “It’s going to start getting serious now,” he said. He suggested that budget information be made more readily available on the district website and that the public be alerted to all budget discussions from this point on. “There are going to be tough decisions. Bring (the public) along for the ride. In the end we’re all better off.”
In other business
In the wake of the killings at Sandy Hook School in Newtown, Conn., the PTA is sponsoring a forum on school safety on Feb. 27. Villanti said that a lockdown drill will take place sometime prior to the forum. An outside audit of Haldane’s safety policies and procedures will also be conducted.
Haldane’s food services department recently received its fourth straight perfect score following an inspection by the Putnam County Health Department. In a letter recognizing the achievement, Pubic Health Supervisor Rick Carano referred to Haldane as having “one of the finest food operations in Putnam County.”
Three teachers have given notice that they will retire at the end of the current school year. Eva Cagianese, foreign language teacher; John Keller, high school math teacher; and Betsy Rasa, kindergarten teacher have 82 years of teaching experience among them. Keller and Rasa will return next year as substitute teachers.
Villanti has sent notices to four area real estate firms regarding their possible interest in representing the district in its sale of the James Pond lands.
Jon Champlin reported that PLAY Haldane, the fundraising initiative to support improvements to Haldane’s main athletic field, stands at $56,000 raised along with $8,000 in pledges. He said that two outstanding grant applications could soon result in significant contributions to the campaign and that two corporate sponsors are also being pursued.
A cash raffle is also being planned, as is a patio near the bleachers, which will consist of engraved stones that residents will be able to purchase. Champlin said that if PLAY Haldane reaches its goal of $100,000, the group wants to continue fundraising to help underwrite the cost of a new concession stand and storage facility.
Villanti and Junjulas displayed detailed drawings of the improvements being undertaken at Haldane’s main athletic field. The project calls for an artificial turf field and a practice and walking track around its perimeter. Construction is expected to get underway in late spring or early summer.
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