BKW superintendent lays out various paths in uncertain budget cycle

Enterprise file photo — H. Rose Schneider
Berne-Knox-Westerlo Superintendent Timothy Mundell in happier times. Mundell was giving a tour showing areas of the school that would be improved by the end of a multi-million dollar capital project intended to overhaul the way the district accommodated students.

BERNE — In his address to the Berne-Knox-Westerlo Board of Education this week and in a conversation with The Enterprise, Superintendent Timothy Mundell outlined the different realities the school will face depending on whether Governor Kathy Hochul’s proposed changes to state Foundation Aid go through.  

Under the existing state-aid formula, BKW has been guaranteed at least the amount of funding that it had received the year prior due to the hold harmless clause that protects districts from losing aid because of declining enrollment, which BKW has struggled with for years. 

But the governor wants to do away with that clause, while also moderating the way inflation is factored in, which for BKW would mean a significant cut in recurring funding. Mundell said that the district will lose $1,248,000 in two years.

This year, BKW has a $25.6 million budget with about $12 million coming from state aid.

Mundell has been on a full-court press to get legislators to reject the governor’s proposal. He told the board on Feb. 26 that accommodating the loss would mean BKW would either have to raise the property tax levy by 12 percent over those two years, or would have to eliminate up to 15 faculty positions along with much of the district’s programming. Less faculty would mean larger class sizes, he said.

“Elementary class [sizes] would go to the mid-20s, because we would have two sections in each grade level,” Mundell said, explaining that there are currently three classes, one of which offers special-education services. 

Up for elimination, he said, would be reading resources that teachers use to assess and address weak foundational skills, in line with the state’s Science of Reading initiative, something the governor is also pushing; similar resources would be cut for math as well. 

Other educational programs that might be cut would be agricultural science and Future Farmers of America, STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) programming, and a block scheduling proposal that would allow students to more specifically tailor their education to their own interests while being able to take remote courses offered at other districts.

Social and emotional support programs are also at risk, Mundell said, with the school’s recent investments, such as becoming a trauma-skilled district, being “wasted.”

“We have a resource officer program in partnership with the county sheriff’s department — it’s an absolutely wonderful, outstanding program and a great partnership — but it costs us $82,000 a year, so that would have to be eliminated,” he said. 

In an interview with The Enterprise prior to the meeting, Mundell referenced the district’s recent capital project, which essentially overhauled the school so that it could provide exactly the kind of innovative programs that the proposed changes put at risk. 

“Everything that I’ve showed you, the spaces that we built, the programs that operate in those spaces, it would go away,” he said. 

All that adds up to the district’s worst-case scenario budget. Mundell said he will essentially be building two budgets this year to account for the uncertainty. The other budget will be in line with aid expectations prior to the governor’s proposal, which Mundell had told the board would be as straightforward as the district’s last few. 

“In this year’s budget cycle — in September, October, November, December, and the first half of January — crickets. It seemed there was going to be a very smooth and quiet budget cycle,” he said.

 

Consolidating?

An alternative Mundell brought up to The Enterprise that would “would take the focus off this [enrollment-based] Foundation Aid” is a shared secondary program among the BKW, Duanesburg, Schoharie, and Middleburgh districts. 

It’s something that had been discussed among the Schoharie Area Superintendents Council, of which BKW is a part, for the past two years or so, with Mundell calling it “a scary thing.”

“Communities don’t like to hear about mergers and consolidations, because they like their autonomy, their independence, their identity,” he said. 

However, if enrollment remains a core metric in Foundation Aid, Mundell said there could be an opportunity to achieve scale through a merger and cut costs while preserving the kinds of programs he sees as critical to student success.

“If we had some incentive to do that from the state, then I think both the New York State Education Department would be open to that, and legislators would be open to that,” he said.

“It’s just an alternative,” Mundell said, “but the public needs to know that the local districts are talking about these kinds of things.”

 

State vs district view

Mundell spent a significant amount of time at the board meeting and with The Enterprise taking down what appears to be the state’s assumptions about how districts operate, and why its current proposal is a good idea despite the backlash.

While BKW is officially considered overfunded on the basis that it receives more state aid under the save-harmless clause than it would receive based on the aid equation alone, Mundell says that funding is merely “adequate” for the needs of BKW’s rural student population. 

Mundell, who joined the district as superintendent in 2015, emphasized the growth in achievement and opportunity that the district has seen since 2009, and the fact that the aid reductions would bring the district back to 2009 levels. 

“When I first got here … there were 18 study halls in a 370-student population in an eight-period day,” he told The Enterprise. “Kids were sitting around doing nothing. That was part of our problem, and that happened out of the Great Recession, and we’ve been able to overcome that. But it took 10, 12 years to overcome.”

“Now,” he said, “our kids have opportunities.”

But, in the eyes of the state, he said, those opportunities stemmed from what amount to unearned handouts, and budgets need to be adjusted to meet the realities of a state that’s hemorrhaging residents.  

New York State Budget Director Blake Washington was particularly blunt in making this point, writing in the Empire Report last month that districts in the state are being funded to the extent that they “are receiving resources faster than they can spend it,” and that state-capped district reserve accounts have ballooned past the established limits. 

This was true for Berne-Knox-Westerlo for a period, though the district was just hit with a “moderate fiscal stress” designation by the New York State Comptroller after spending down its reserves in response to being over the limit, which may impact its bond rating, as had happened in Guilderland. 

Washington goes on to say that spending is going up, with New York paying more than twice the national average per student while experiencing population loss. 

“Instead of asking the question, ‘How much money are our schools getting?;’ it should be, ‘why do we have a formula that forces us to pay for students that don’t exist?’” Washington wrote.

While Mundell acknowledged that the district has a higher cost-per-student than many other districts — with 674 students, the district spends $28,087 on each, with class sizes of 15 to 20, as compared to the state average of $24,040 per student — he argued that redistributing the funds to usually-larger schools below the per-pupil spending average is flawed thinking. 

“Do we have smaller class sizes than suburban districts? Yes, but it’s a function of economy of scale,” he said, since children are expected to hit the same levels of achievement, regardless of district density. 

To illustrate, Mundell constructed a hypothetical course that has five classes of 25 students in a suburban district each day, taught by a teacher who earns $50,000. The cost per student in that course is $400. 

If the same course under the same conditions in a rural district like BKW has just 15 students per class, the cost per student is $666. 

“Our option I suppose, in some heads, is to say no to those [rural] students,” Mundell said. “In saying no, then they’re not going to have that coursework under their belts, and when they meet those other students from the larger district in their college classes,” they’re going to be at a disadvantage.

Naturally, the actual calculation isn’t so simple, since schools these days are more than just Three-R’s oriented classrooms. For instance, the cost of transporting students to alternative facilities, Mundell said, is $40,000, regardless of how many students are on the bus, which, for low-population districts (where buses cover more distance to begin with) skews the overall cost-per-pupil.

“We need to become more sophisticated in how we look at the formula … The cost-per-student mentality is a myth. It completely dismisses equity,” he said. “And it misses many of the factors that affect costs, so that rural districts can make sure that they get kids to school, get them fed, keep them warm, take care of their mental-health needs, and teach them reading, writing, and arithmetic.” 

Mundell told the board of education this week that the governor appears to hold the belief that overfunded districts like BKW are “flush with cash,” which he says is not true, pointing to the comptroller’s recent report. 

He told The Enterprise that “in all things non-instructional … we’ve been very tight. And maybe too tight, not accounting for increases in cost,” leaving the district unable to bleed its equipment lines. 

Mundell told the board that he’s not gunning for larger districts’ money, since he acknowledges the unique problems they face with large populations of students that don’t speak English as a first language, “but I need my money to address the needs here.” 

Mundell told The Enterprise that he hopes that the governor’s proposal is part of a strategy to force an urgent, bipartisan negotiation about changes to the state aid formula to make it more equitable, which The Enterprise pushed for in a Feb. 15 editorial

“I hope that’s the noble thought in her head, because otherwise she’s being vindictive, mean, draconian, and superficial in her policymaking,” he said. “But if this is meant to be a political tactic to bring people together, to have this conversation so we can have a more sophisticated approach to this formula, that’s fine.” 

Mundell said he’s willing to “take my chances” at the negotiating table, to help craft a new formula. “And I’m willing to take my chances with the proposal that maybe we should look at incentive aid for areas where it’s reasonable and feasible to have a shared secondary program  … I think that could be a conversation starter in those areas, this one included. So I’m hoping she’s that politically savvy.” 

More Hilltowns News

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