VCSD: Gilker thumps incumbent board prez, $25M budget passes with ease

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

Big winner: Doubling the vote total of her two challengers combined, Rachel Gilker scored a resounding victory on Tuesday night, earning a four-year term on the Voorheesville School Board

VOORHEESVILLE — Tuesday was a good night for budgets but a bad night to be an incumbent, as challenger Rachel Gilker nearly tripled the vote count of school-board President Doreen Saia to win her first four-year term, while voters overwhelmingly approved a $25.4 million budget for next year.

For the Voorheesville Public Library, newcomer Belinda Heckler bested incumbent Lance Moore for a five-year trustee term, as voters resoundingly approved a $1.27 million budget for next year.

A total of 1,210 people voted this year, nearly doubling the 655 votes that were cast last year. In 2017, just over 500 voted; in 2016, 966 voted; 766 voted in 2015; and in 2014, there were 590 votes cast.

Gilker received 775 votes to Saia’s 278 while newcomer Sean Fell received 100 votes; there were also 25 write-in votes.

The proposed $25.4 million budget for next year — which cut five full-time positions to help pay for skyrocketing prescription-drug costs and will also raise property taxes by 2.96 percent — was approved 868 to 342.

Voters also approved, by a vote of 955 to 253, $227,000 for bus purchases.

At the library, Heckler received 469 votes to Moore’s 445 votes; 15 write-in votes were also cast. Voters approved next year’s library budget, 931 to 278.

Gilker, who lost her first bid for the school board in 2016, seems to have never let her foot off the gas this time around, returning her nominating petition — which needed just 25 signatures — with over 350 names, while also receiving the endorsement of the Voorheesville Teachers’ Association, a first for the union in the 20 years that Kathy Fiero has been president.

Asked to what she attributed her win, Gilker told The Enterprise, “The engagement of so many people who are involved in this community. This community is full of people who really care, and they came and voted.”

Asked about the magnitude, she said, “We got out and we worked hard; a lot of people worked really hard.”

With such high voter turnout, Fell said that he did better than he expected, adding that while he remains interested in the process — fixing the budget and finding a solution to exploding prescription-drug costs — he would not say if he plans to run again anytime soon.

Saia was not present on Tuesday night.

Sarah Clark, the library’s director, said that she was “delighted” with the budget vote, adding that she “really enjoyed working with Lance” and hopes that he will remain involved with some upcoming library projects.

Neither Heckler nor Moore were present at the middle school for Tuesday night’s election results.

Tax increases

While her opponents were definitive in their answers about tax increases, Gilker, in an earlier interview with The Enterprise, did not immediately dismiss out of hand voting to levy over the maximum amount allowed by the state but was clear to state that any such vote could not be done “without a lot of conversations with the community, and only if the community was completely on board before the decision was made to do so.”

Adding later, “But you need to gauge the community’s willingness to do something like that, and gauge their understanding of what it means to do that and what it means to not.”

Prior to the implementation of the tax cap, between 2004 and 2011, Voorheesville had an average levy increase of 4.3 percent, according to the Rockefeller Institute for Government. Since implementation, between 2012 and 2018, the average increase has been 2.1 percent.

Across the Capital Region — which, according to the Rockefeller Institute, includes: Warren, Saratoga, Washington, Rensselaer, Schenectady, Albany, Greene, and Columbia counties —  prior to the Great Recession, between 2004 and 2007, the average annual property-tax increase was 6.25 percent; during the Great Recession, between 2008 and 2011, the average annual increase was 2.63 percent; and since the implementation of the tax cap, between 2012 and 2018, the average annual property-tax increase in the Capital Region has been 1.97 percent.

According to the Voorheesville School District, there are about 3,600 tax parcels within the school district, and, as of 2016, according to the United States Census Bureau, there were about 7,340 residents. At the beginning of this school year, the district had 1,175 students.  

For this year, the parts of three towns that make up the district had these tax rates:

— New Scotland: $19.84 per $1,000 of assessed property value;

— Guilderland: $22.96 per $1,000 of assessed property value; and

— Berne: $30.23 per $1,000 of assessed property value.

Using the following simple formula, tax amount = tax rate [multiplied by] assessed value [divided by] $1,000, The Enterprise calculated this year’s and next year’s taxes for a $250,000 home in each of the three towns:

— In New Scotland, increasing $19.84 by 2.96 percent would be $20.43.

A New Scotland home valued at $250,000 — without accounting for exemptions or the equalization rate — would have paid about $4,960 in taxes to the school district this year.

Next year, the payment would be about $5,100;

— In Guilderland, increasing $22.96 by 2.96 percent would be $23.64.

A Guilderland home valued at $250,000 — without accounting for exemptions or the equalization rate — would have paid about $5,740 in taxes to the school district this year.

Next year, the payment would be about $5,910; and

— In Berne, increasing $30.23 by 2.96 percent would be $31.12.

A Berne home valued at $250,000 — without accounting for exemptions or the equalization rate — would have paid about $7,560 in taxes to the school district this year.

Next year, the payment would be about $7,780.

Costs

Gilker will be going from outsider to insider when she joins the school board at it re-organizational meeting in July, at which time she and her fellow board members will have to work with a new superintendent to find ways to rein in the prescription-drug costs.

It had been announced only in March that the district was facing a half-million dollar shortfall, primarily due to the spike in drug costs. Then, just a few weeks later, the budget deficit had increased another $80,000, leaving the school board scrambling for ways to bridge a $622,000 gap.

To fill the gap, in addition to the increase in property taxes, the school board among other cuts approved the elimination of a kindergarten teacher position, the school resource officer program, three full-time teaching assistants, and one full-time aid.

The problem for Voorheesville is that the district is enrolled in a prescription-drug plan that has no mechanism for containing costs; whatever the price of the drug, the district has to pay it. In addition, because of the plan the district is enrolled in, it has to pay for brand-name drugs for which there are generic equivalents available.

In one recent example, the school district received a prescription-drug bill for $87,678, which was for a two-week period — the district had budgeted $89,500 for the entire month. The district has already blown through its million-dollar prescription-drug budget for the year, and is close to exhausting a $681,000 reserve.
Currently, the district is paying for the prescription-drug benefits of 160 active employees and 95 retirees. Add in family members, and Voorheesville is providing drug benefits to 680 people of which 14 use a specialty maintenance drug, the cause of the skyrocketing costs.

More New Scotland News

  • At the monthly meeting of the Voorheesville School Board, teachers and residents aired grievances over issues of transparency, communication, and planning. The district’s students were again recognized for their work in the classroom. 

  • David Albright told The Enterprise that he was 8 and riding on his yellow banana-seat bike in April 1972 when he and his friend saw a plane flying very low — just 300 to 500 feet off the ground — and stopped to stare at it. The pilot saw them too, Albright said, and waved. 

The Altamont Enterprise is focused on hyper-local, high-quality journalism. We produce free election guides, curate readers' opinion pieces, and engage with important local issues. Subscriptions open full access to our work and make it possible.