GCSD closes gap on $100.7M budget, may add more

Enterprise file photo — Melissa Hale-Spencer

“Overall, I feel much more optimistic than I did two weeks ago,” said Superintendent Marie Wiles on Monday. She is shown here presenting her budget in March. Guilderland School Board members are considering recommendations made by the administration to add to the budget, given more state aid and savings.

GUILDERLAND — State aid along with what the school superintendent calls “fine-tuning” allowed Guilderland to close the $1.6 million budget gap it had originally faced with its $100.7 million spending plan for next year.

“We’re still being very careful,” said Superintendent Marie Wiles.

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.

The district had first worked from a “rollover budget,” replicating the staff and programs from the current year, and basing state aid figures on the governor’s proposal, expecting about $25.7 million, roughly a quarter of the budget, from state aid and Medicaid.

When the state budget was finally adopted, however, Guilderland got an additional $282,664 in Foundation Aid and another $9,614 in expense-driven aid, said Wiles.

“Another $175,000 is available to us from shifting costs for summer-school special education,” Wiles said.

She explained that Guilderland has students whose Individualized Education Programs, known as IEPs, require that they attend summer school in July and August. “That program had been aided at 80 percent,” said Wiles. “The governor proposed changing the funding to be based on the wealth ratio.”

Under the governor’s plan, Guilderland would have the summer-school program aided at just 43 percent instead of the former 80 percent; $175,000 covers the reduction.

“Now we don’t have to get that from the general fund,” said Wiles.

Another way the gap was closed was by “refining our budget tremendously,” said Wiles. “It’s now based on actual needs and actual costs,” said Wiles.

Neil Sanders, the district’s assistant superintendent for business, gave The Enterprise an example of some fine-tuning that had helped: Guilderland is part of a consortium for natural gas and electricity, and the utility expenses for next year are now expected to be $41,000 less than originally calculated.

The board members held a workshop on Tuesday to go over recommendations and discuss their budget priorities. One recommendation from the district is to take $830,000 from the fund balance, or rainy-day account, rather than the $930,000 that was first proposed. This year’s budget used $605,000 from the fund balance.

This year, district residents in the town of Guilderland, where the lion’s share of the district lies, paid $22.63 per $1,000 of assessed valuation in property taxes. “Right now, we’re looking at a 1.71-percent tax increase,” said Sanders on Wednesday.

At Tuesday’s workshop, the board worked from two sheets. Both included the revenue adjustments from state aid and expenditure adjustments, including $175,000 for summer special-education aid, $41,000 for gas and electricity, $23,320 for special-education placements, and $3,320 in employee-benefit savings.

The first sheet showed a revised budget of $100,478,210 down from the superintendent’s initial proposal of $100,720,850, for an increase of 2.02 percent over this year. The second sheet showed a revised budget of  $100,895,190 for an increase of 2.45 percent over this year.

The second plan includes recommendations by the district for adding: one-and three-tenths posts for elementary reading support ($104,000), two teachers to reduce elementary class size ($160,000), replacing instructional technology devices ($105,890), adding a teacher to restore high school course electives ($80,000), adding high school instructional equipment, materials, repairs, and supplies ($14,190), and musical instruments ($12,900).

The board will finalize the budget, choosing from among these recommendations, at its April 17 meeting.

When Wiles presented her budget in March, it was reported that the district this year has 4,840 students and 931 employees of which 276 work part-time. Enrollment district-wide was 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.

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.

The budget will stay below the state-set cap, which, according to an eight-step formula, is at 2.2 percent for next year. The current plan, Sanders said on Wednesday, is $15,604 under the levy limit.

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.

Guilderland does not come under the new state mandate to submit to the state per-pupil building-level allocations. “That’s a function of the number of buildings and 50 percent free and reduced-price lunches,” an indication of poverty, Wiles said. Guilderland has seven school buildings, not the nine that sets up the mandate. However, Wiles anticipates the mandate may be expanded.

As far as the governor’s plan for caps on expense-based aid, Wiles said, “I’m thankful it went away.” Such caps she said, take away incentive. She noted that Guilderland does a lot of shared services through the Board of Cooperative Educational Services and other programs.

The recently passed state budget gives schools the option to set up local charitable funds to offset the federal exemption for state and local taxes, known as SALT, meaning school boards can allow taxpayers to reduce their federal tax burden while still supporting schools.

Asked if Guilderland would be involved in such an initiative, Wiles noted “the uncertainties with the IRS,” and said, “We haven’t even begun considering that at this point.”

She concluded that she was grateful to the legislators representing Guilderland — Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy,  Democrat, and Senator George Amedore, a Republican — “for advocating for us.”

“Overall, I feel much more optimistic than I did two weeks ago,” said Wiles. “I’m confident when all is said and done, our budget is going to meet the needs of our students.”

Corrected on April 18, 2018: The incorrect digit after the decimal in the budget total was corrected.

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