Board weighs cutbacks
By Pamela Doan
The Haldane Board of Education heard another grim report this week from Business Manager Anne Dinio and Interim Superintendent John Chambers. As the April 8 deadline for approving a school budget for the 2014-15 school year draws closer, the board is still reviewing options on how to close their revenue gap.
At the March 14 board meeting, the second budget proposal indicated there would be nearly a $400,000 gap between budget needs and incoming funds. At the March 25 meeting, the gap had widened to $660,000 due to new information about decreased tuition from estimated enrollment. New information indicates there will be 12 fewer students, four from Garrison and eight less special education students, meaning a loss in tuition of $275,000.
Chambers’ and Dinio’s presentation focused on the double whammy of the state’s Tax Levy Limit restricting the district’s ability to ask voters for funds the school needs and the Gap Elimination Adjustment, the reduction in school funding imposed in Albany to close the state’s own budget gap. Using the state’s formula, Haldane is limited to a 1.09 percent increase in the Tax Levy Limit. If the board asks voters to approve a higher percentage, district taxpayers could stand to lose the state property tax rebate and it would require a supermajority to pass.
For Haldane, the Gap Elimination Adjustment means about $2 million in reduced state aid over the past four years. Combined with the property tax levy cap, it has made budgeting challenging every school year and the district has responded accordingly.
Dinio reviewed the cutbacks the district has made since the 2010-11 school year. The reductions included cutting staff, lowering medical expenses, cutting bus runs and department budgets, eliminating summer school and pay freezes for administrators, among other things. A complete list is available on the school website in the section for the annual budget under the Board of Education tab.
For the upcoming school year, the board is considering a number of what Chambers described as “undesirable options.” The Bubble Class, an extra class added to accommodate a higher than usual number of students in the fourth grade, could be cut. Hours may be reduced for a consumer science position. Staff development, extra-curricular activities, sports teams, and electives are all being evaluated for cuts. Class sizes could increase but it wasn’t clear by how much and if that was overall or if it only affected the fourth grade.
The most significant cost-savings the board was presented with is a “smoothing” of retirement contributions for the Teachers Retirement System. This is a program the district could opt into to pay a stable contribution option. Chambers said, “Essentially it amounts to taking our obligation to the TRS mandated by the legislature and spreading it out over a period of seven years. The balance would be due at the end and it includes a not unreasonable interest charge.” The option could save the district $300,000 in next year’s budget and the district could opt out in the future if interest rates improved and the budget outlook became more positive.
For future considerations, the board could explore the possibility of a merger with another district, possibly Garrison, and students may need to bring their own electronic devices instead of having any that are provided by the school. The board is clearly searching for long-term solutions to this annual challenge.
Trustees and administrators alike echoed the call to action for community members to call their legislatures and lobby for more school funding. The legislature may pass a state budget by April 1. Until then, the board is dealing with estimated figures for state aid. If more funds are not allocated for schools, the board will have to make difficult decisions in the next few weeks about the fate of next year’s programs. Upcoming meetings on April 1 and April 8 will include discussions of other options.
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