Residents to reconsider $38.97 million proposed school budget on July 28

Greater Johnstown School District residents will be asked to reconsider a $38.97 million proposed spending plan for the 2020-21 school year during a budget revote on July 28.

The proposed budget includes a 2.92% spending increase and a tax levy increase of 5%, which is above the district’s calculated tax levy “cap.” A supermajority of voters (60%) is required for budget approval.

Interim Superintendent Dr. Karen Geelan and Assistant Superintendent Ruthie Cook presented the budget during a virtual public hearing July 15.

“The spending proposal is a lean, needs-based budget that is student-focused, with resources being shifted from administrative and capital expenses to student programs,” said Geelan.

The proposed budget addresses the district’s educational priorities by enhancing services for struggling learners, ensuring academic intervention services (AIS) will be taught by at least two teachers per school and by placing a certified library media specialist at each school.

Also included in the spending plan is the addition of a district social worker and an assistant principal for grades 7-8 as part of the reconfiguration plan. It reinstates athletics to the 2018-19 program level and restores field trips and extracurricular activities.

“It’s those things that happen outside of school that help with the development of executive skills, teamwork and getting to know yourself and your strengths,” said Geelan.

The proposal reflects $1.5 million in spending reductions derived from lower health insurance costs as well as the elimination of positions in the areas of administration, teaching, teaching assistants, food service, custodial and nursing. Some of the positions are being eliminated through attrition (an employee leaves or retires, and the district does not hire someone to replace them), while other reductions will result in layoffs.

“This budget was built by looking at the district’s priorities, which include maximizing opportunities for students, keeping taxes reasonable, maintaining reserve funds for unanticipated needs and striving to minimize future budget swings,” said Geelan.

Board decision on revote

Cook noted the Board of Education opted for a revote on the same budget that was defeated on June 16. That decision was influenced by outreach from residents as well as the fact that 57% of voters supported the proposal on June 16, just 3% shy of the required supermajority (60%) for passage, she said.

“Many community members reached out to us, urging us to hold a second vote [on the same budget],” she said.

“The board also believes the proposed 5% tax levy increase is reasonable given the steps that have been taken to cut costs and gain efficiencies in the past several years,” Cook said.

“In the last three years, more than $3 million in expenditures have been cut from the budget, which includes 47 positions,” said Cook. While some of the cuts were made to “right-size” staffing due to enrollment declines, others were a result of closing Glebe and repurposing Knox as well as leaving unfilled positions vacated by retirements or resignations.

Tax levy increase reduced to 5%

Cook noted that the proposed 5% tax levy increase is a significant reduction from the 14% originally anticipated in what is the second step of a multi-year district plan to achieve financial stability and improve student achievement.

Several strategic decisions, including closing Glebe, repurposing Knox and greater use of shared services, as well as staff reductions and changes to health insurance, allowed the district to reduce the proposed tax levy increase to 9%.

A larger-than-anticipated fund balance due to school closure as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic enabled the district to reduce the proposed tax levy increase to 5%.

“We have been carefully monitoring the budget to contain spending. There were also fewer unanticipated or emergency expenses in the last year,” which meant additional available fund balance at the end of the year, she said.

The proposed budget would use approximately $3 million in fund balance and includes an increase of about $266,944 in state aid, which is about a 1.1% increase over last year.

About a quarter (26%) of the district’s revenue comes from the tax levy, while the bulk of revenue (62%) is derived from state aid.

“Our state aid increases are minimal,” Cook said. “Without the levy increases, we can’t keep up with the basic cost of living.”

In planning, the district is also taking into account several unknowns, including potential state aid cuts and expenditures related to COVID-19 in the fall.

The enacted state budget provides for three time periods during the state’s fiscal year when the State Division of Budget will evaluate revenues against projections and potentially withhold or adjust aid to localities, including school districts. This possibility for mid-year aid cuts means that schools may receive even less state funding than it appears at this time. While districts have not seen a reduction in state aid in each of two “look back” periods thus far, it’s unclear if adjustments will be made at the end of the third look back period on Dec. 31.

“We also anticipate potential increased expenditures related to safety and health monitoring as [classes resume in the fall],” Cook said.

Cook said the audit committee will hold public meetings throughout the year to review spending and ensure the district is fiscally on track.

“The 2.9% spending increase is not fluff,” said Geelan. “Programs are increased in this budget. Students will need good quality teachers and a good quality education program to help them get to where they need to be academically, socially and emotionally.”

“As Dr. Geelan has said, we can’t cut our way to excellence,” said Cook. “We have to maintain those programs if we are going to see improvement and excellence in our student outcomes.”

Tax bill impact

Under an approved budget with a 5% tax levy increase, the average taxpayer with a home assessed at $100,000 could expect to see their tax bill increase by approximately$80.65 per year, or about $1.55 per week.

The amount of an individual’s tax bill will vary based on the location of his or her home. Estimates are based on current assessments and equalization rates, and may change when actual tax rates are set in August.

Contingent budget

If the proposed spending plan does not pass, the district would move to a contingent budget. Under the property tax cap law, a school district that adopts a contingent budget cannot increase its tax levy, and an additional $890,000 would have to be cut from the budget. Geelan said additional reductions would directly affect student programs and services as well as intended purchases, such as a plow purchase the district has put off for the past few years.

Voting on July 28

On July 28, polls will be open for in-person voting from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. at Johnstown Junior-Senior High School. Voters must observe social distancing and wear a mask or face covering.

For information on how to request an absentee ballot, please visit www.johnstownschools.org/absentee or call the district clerk at 518-762-4611 ext 3119.

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