GCSD proposes $100.1M spending plan for next year

Marie Wiles, budget presentation

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer
This is a budget presentation about give and take, give and take, give and take,” says Superintendent Marie Wiles as she explains her $100 million draft to the school board on Tuesday night.

GUILDERLAND — The school district here is proposing a $100.1 million budget for next year, up 2.27 percent from this year.

The Guilderland School Board and the public can ask questions about the proposed spending plan at a 7 p.m. session on March 13. The board is scheduled to adopt a finalized budget on April 17, and the public will have its say at the polls on May 15.

At this point, Guilderland is projecting a tax-rate impact of 1.73 percent, according to Neil Sanders, the assistant superintendent for business. Guilderland is fortunate, he said, to have growth in town, with new construction, which increases the tax base.

With nearly flat state aid, a tax levy limit, and some unexpected increased costs like retiree contributions, Guilderland faced a $1.6 million budget gap.

Still, the proposed spending plan — of $100,720,850 — shows an increase of 4.3 posts, which includes five unassigned teachers and five unassigned teaching assistants to give the district flexibility next year in meeting unforeseen needs.

Guilderland, in 2015, was finally able to add some posts after five years of large budget gaps, where the district cut over 200 staff members. As with many districts across the state, in the wake of the Great Recession, massive cuts had to be made to balance the budget as state aid faltered and a tax-levy limit had been imposed.

“This is a budget presentation about give and take, give and take, give and take,” said Superintendent Marie Wiles as she explained the draft to the school board on Tuesday night.

The plan dips into the district’s fund balance, or rainy day account, using $930,000, which is $325,000 more than it used this year, although the majority of board members had said they wanted to use as little as possible.

The budget will stay below the state-set cap, which, according to an eight-step formula, is at 2.2 percent for next year. That means just a simple majority — more than 50 percent — rather than a supermajority of more than 60 percent will be needed to pass it. Last year, nearly 75 percent of voters approved the current $98.5 million budget.

However, Guilderland is coming close to the levy limit. Sanders described it as “very, very tight” — just $6,178 under the limit.

The district currently has over $12 million in its fund balance and reserves — reserves being dedicated to specific areas allowed by law. For two years in a row, the state’s comptroller has labeled Guilderland as “susceptible” to stress. The district has dipped into its fund balance to preserve programs; then, with less cash on hand, it has borrowed money to be able to meet payroll and other expenses in case state aid was delayed. The district has since increased its fund balance to acceptable limits.

Survey says

In addition to board members, the community was surveyed and 1,346 people responded, including 595 parents, 379 students, and 341 employees. The top priority was safe and secure buildings, at 61 percent, followed by academic supports, at 56 percent.

About half the respondents said Guilderland should close its revenue gap by reducing spending; about 30 percent said to close the gap by using money from the fund balance; and close to 20 percent said to challenge the tax cap.

The district expects some savings next year from students with special needs, at age 21, requiring less expensive services, and also from savings on utility costs and debt payments.

While many requests are not answered in the budget draft, teaching assistants for kindergarten and first grade have not been cut. “We heard loudly and clearly when the community gathered on Feb. 13,” said Wiles.

Revenues and expenses

This year, the district has 4,840 students and 931 employees of which 276 work part-time. Enrollment district-wide is expected to increase by 45 students next year, due to increases in the elementary schools. Consequently, the budget shows some increase in teaching posts at the elementary level with some deductions at the secondary level.

Although the governor is touting increases of $288 million in education aid, Sanders said, “We’re in the bucket of having access to 80 percent of the overall aid increase.”

“The best way to provide education is through people,” Sanders said, noting that 79 percent of the budget is for employee salaries and benefits.

On the expenditure side, salaries for professionals total about $42 million; for support staff, about $10 million; and for employee benefits, about $27 million. Debt service is close to $7 million; contract services are about $6 million; services from the Board of Cooperative Educational Services are about $5 million; and supplies and textbooks come close to $2 million.

On the revenue side, about $25.7 million is expected from state aid and Medicaid; about $1.3 million from local sources; $930,000 from the fund balance; and about $72.4 million from property taxes.

Additions and reductions

Wiles listed a number of “identified needs,” which the budget would add. This includes a permanent substitute at the high school. Guilderland which, like other districts, has had trouble getting substitute teachers in recent years, piloted hiring permanent substitutes, which Wiles said has worked well and saved money this year, so another post will be added next year.

The identified needs that are to be addressed in the budget also include two-tenths of a post to teach Italian, meeting demand; two-tenths of a post for help in middle-school math; a post to meet the need for psychological services at the middle and high schools; a special-education teacher at the high school and another at the elementary level; four-tenths of a physical-therapist post; five teaching assistants; and elementary literacy coaching.

Wiles said of reductions, “These were hard to talk about and implement.”

Since more computing is done on laptops in classrooms rather than computers in a lab, a part-time lab assistant is being cut. A post is also being cut for structured high school study hall.

Additionally, high school electives are being cut to save $80,000, or the equivalent of one teacher, which includes courses in computer science, business, studio art, and Advanced Placement — or college level — English.

The draft also calls for reducing the eighth grade at Farnsworth Middle School from 16 sections to 14 sections, which would eliminate all part-time teachers and save $186,000. An English-as-a-new-language teacher would be cut at the middle school as the need has decreased, saving $80,000.

Funds that were to go toward restoring the cobblestone schoolhouse in Guilderland Center — which is not used for classes, has historic value but to which the district does not have a clear title to sell — were cut to save $35,000. And refinishing the gym floor at the middle school was postponed to save $50,000.

Wiles said she was “very excited” by the prospect of having a mental-health clinic, at a cost of $35,000, to support students and their families. This would be offered by the Capital Region BOCES in partnership with Parsons, and would not replace school psychologists and social workers.

“If things get better,” said Wiles, noting she had just spoken with legislators who had “measured optimism,” several services may be added to the budget, including reading support at Pine Bush and Guilderland elementary schools, for $104,000. And electives may be restored and a course in American Sign Language added, at a cost of $13,000 per elective, and spending on technology for $187,750 could be added, too.

“You had a visceral demonstration,” said Wiles, referring to the delay in her presentation because of a snafu in getting images to project.

Wiles concluded by saying, “We put students’ needs first, over the long run.” She also said the district listens to the community and respects taxpayers.

“I don’t like to be the harbinger of not-great news,” said Wiles, “but we’re worried about 2019-20.”

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