How do you plan during a pandemic?
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the Beacon school district is wrestling with what it can ask from taxpayers for the 2020-21 school year.
The district has proposed a $75.8 million budget, which includes $41.6 million in revenue to be collected through property taxes. That’s an increase of $1.3 million, or 3.23 percent, over last year.
Using the most recent assessment figures, the average Beacon home would pay $126 more in school taxes if the budget is approved. Increases would be roughly $156 for district residents living in Fishkill and Wappingers.
Another major source of revenue is state aid, the amount of which is typically not known until late in the process. But this year it’s particularly unclear. Last year, the state gave Beacon nearly $29.5 million; this year it was expecting $30.4 million, but the coronavirus has left New York billions of dollars in the red.
The state has already deducted nearly $725,000 from Beacon’s aid as a “pandemic adjustment,” Deputy Superintendent Ann Marie Quartironi told the school board during its April 14 meeting, which was held by video conference. A federal aid package reimbursed the district for the same amount, but additional state cuts could be coming at the end of the month and then again in June and September, she said.
“Our goal with this budget is to hold steady in all the things we’ve accomplished in the last few years,” Quartironi said, citing the addition of seven elementary school teachers and laptops for every student. Plans to add staff at Rombout Middle School and Beacon High School are on hold, Superintendent Matt Landahl said.
The district also typically adds a proposition to the May ballot for the purchase of buses and other equipment. This year the proposition would ask voters to approve $390,000 in spending, but on March 30 Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered that school budget and trustee votes be postponed until at least June 1.
If the governor orders another delay, the Beacon school board will be forced to vote on its own budget, because the district’s fiscal year begins on July 1. If that happens, the bus proposition will be canceled, Quartironi said.
Board Member Michael Rutkoske asked during the April 14 video conference whether the district should seek its maximum permissible tax levy under a state-imposed cap. A number of “growth factors” — tied to the state’s consumer price index and the addition of new households to Beacon’s tax base — allow the district to increase its levy, but by the time tax bills come out, those factors could “have a negative impact on the taxpayers, who might be challenged already,” Rutkoske said.
The district is trying “to keep taxes as low as possible,” Quartironi said, “but we have to look to next year and the year after. I was thinking about putting as much into reserves as I could to hedge a cut [in funding] that we don’t see coming. I’m more worried about going forward than this coming year.”
Rather than cut the budget further, Vice President Meredith Heuer suggested the district gauge what it actually needs to provide an education for its students. “It’s important that we give a real number,” she said. “To undermine our budget gives a false sense of what it costs to run the district.”