Frustrated with lack of state-aid numbers, GCSD adopts $125M budget for next year

— Photo from agenda packet for April 16, 2024 Guilderland School Board meeting

Students from the Guilderland High School American Sign Language class work with Westmere Elementary students in the Deaf and Hard of Hearing classroom.

GUILDERLAND — The delayed state budget has put Guilderland, like school districts across the state, in a difficult situation since exact state-aid figures are still unclear.

School board members on Tuesday used words like “unfair,” “stuck,” and “disappointing” to describe their predicament.

Nevertheless, the Guilderland board adopted a $125 million spending plan for next year. It will take just a simple majority to pass the budget on May 21 since the spending plan is $1,270 under the state-set levy limit.

The $125,192,817 budget proposal is up $5,420,623 from this year, an increase of 4.53 percent. The levy will increase 2.74 percent, to $82,501,297.

“This is the first time since the implementation of the tax cap there has been uncertainty about what we expect for state aid in the budget,” Andrew Van Alstyne, Guilderland’s assistant superintendent for business, told the board on Tuesday.

Four days after the school board met, the state budget was finalized, on April 20.

Van Alstyne told The Enterprise this week that Guilderland would be receiving $98,000 more in state aid than the conservative estimate on which the budget was based.

“We can’t add more spending,” he said. So, following the board’s priority, the added funds will be put into reserves since the district’s reserves have been drained with tax cases, making it an outlier among its Suburban Council peers.

Although Governor Kathy Hochul announced on April 15 that a budget agreement had been reached — 15 days past the April 1 deadline — schools have not been given aid figures. Hochul had proposed two changes to Foundation Aid.

One, which did not affect Guilderland because enrollment has remained steady, was to remove the safe-harmless provision, which allowed schools with declining enrollment to keep the same aid. That will stay in place for next year but “the Rockefeller Institute of Government, in collaboration with the State Education Department, will conduct a comprehensive study on school funding with a focus on Foundation Aid,” Hochul said in a speech on April 15, as she explained state budget decisions.

 “They'll track down where the money is going to waste and how we can get every student the resources they need to learn,” she said.

The second change that Hochul proposed in Foundation Aid was altering the way inflation is calculated, which appears to be part of the agreed-upon state budget.

“We’ve agreed to take a significant step this year to improve the school-aid formula, and to adjust the unsustainable built-in rate of growth with our Foundation Aid formula,” Hochul said in her April 15 speech.

The governor’s office sent out a press release on April 15, stating the budget is “lowering the inflation factor in the Foundation Aid formula to right-size funding for the 2024-25 school year.”

Current law called for 4.1 percent for inflationary adjustment while Hochul had proposed 2.4 percent. During budget negotiations, a compromise was reached, setting the inflationary adjustment at 2.8 percent. That is the single biggest factor in Guilderland receiving the additional $98,000 more than anticipated, Van Alstyne told The Enterprise on Monday.

Van Alstyne told the school board on April 16 that he had calculated a $425,000 cut to the Foundation Aid that Guilderland would have received had the formula not been changed. The district receives roughly $40 million in aid from the state.

“We used the more conservative figure in our calculations and in our projections so we didn’t have to make any cuts related to the budget,” Van Alstyne told the board on April 16. “But conversely, we weren’t able to also add anything additional based on if her proposal was rejected.”

Van Alstyne noted, “Prior to the tax cap, school districts were able to set the levy needed to support their budget … If state aid comes in higher than what was forecast, there could be adjustments to the levy amount. That’s not possible under the tax cap because we have a strict limit.”

Superintendent Marie Wiles noted that the three additions that had been made to her March 5 draft would stay in the budget: $87,900 for an additional Comprehensive Skills class for special-needs students at the high school, $12,500 for girls’ flag football, and $74,020 for added maintenance and facilities costs.

Wiles also went over a “wish list” of items that will not be in the budget since more robust state aid was not forthcoming.

Additionally, Wiles listed added costs for items deemed essential: the bid for electricity was $98,000 higher than anticipated; BOCES costs are up about $46,000; cost for the district’s fire-safety service is up about $3,900; and the kindergarten enrollment at Altamont Elementary next year, for which two sections were planned, is now at 53 students, well over the upper limit of 23, so a third section was added for about $88,000.

The district was able to budget for these added costs without going over the cap because of anticipated savings in transportation and not having the Guilderland Public Library’s capital debt counted as part of the levy in calculating the tax cap.

Guilderland’s new transportation director, Craig Lipps, recommended buying Transfinder bus-routing software rather than doing bus routing by hand, Wiles said. Transfinder costs roughly $40,000. “But,” said Wiles, “the efficiency … will give us an offset of $100,000.”

Van Alstyne also said the final budget reduces appropriated reserves by $100,000.

The board members, as has been the practice since Wiles became superintendent, were provided with worksheets so they could suggest changes to the spending plan before adopting it.

“We don’t have wiggle room except for $1,200,” said Blanca Gonzalez-Parker, referencing the amount that the budget is under the tax cap.

At the start of the meeting, Gonzalez-Parker had been elected as the board’s vice president, replacing Kelly Person, who was elected president.

The former president, Seema Rivera, was named to the state’s Board of Regents so left the Guilderland board.

“I feel like there’s really not much we can do,” said Gonzalez-Parker. “We can’t add anything.”

Board member Gloria Towle-Hilt asked if the state-aid numbers for guilderland were to come in higher than expected, “We can’t do anything once we’ve voted, right?”

“It can be used as revenue, but we can’t overspend the budget that the board adopts,” Wiles confirmed.

“Without knowing state aid, we have to use the governor’s number,” said Van Alstyne. Reporting indicates “a very real chance the governor’s proposal goes through,” he said.

Towle-Hilt asked what would happen if Guilderland didn’t get as much state aid as the budget calls for.

“That won’t happen because we’re not affected by the safe-harmless provision,” said Wiles. “We’re fortunate that our enrollment has been steady.”

Wiles stressed that the board had to vote because of the timeline for the state-set voting date of May 21. “We’re very close. There’s legal notices that have to be done,” she said. “There’s the communication that has to be put together so we can mail our newsletter. I don’t feel like we can wait.”

With board member Rebecca Butterfield absent, the vote in favor of the $125 million budget was 6 to 1.

Nathan Sabourin, who has been on the board for three years and is not seeking re-election, voted against it.

“I would propose to go over the cap,” said Sabourin, explaining his “no” vote.

Gonzalez-Parker asked why he hadn’t said that earlier.

Sabourin responded that he had “read the room.”


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