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Hilltown Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, May 19, 2011

Budget goes down again, Sikule and Lefkaditis elected to school board

By Zach Simeone

BERNE — For the second year in a row, Berne-Knox-Westerlo’s budget has been voted down by district residents, though the vote was closer this year.

The $21 million budget represented a $1.3 million increase from the current contingency budget, and would have raised the taxy levy by 3.5 percent, to $10.7 million. It failed by 28 votes, with 451 residents voting in favor, and 479 residents opposed.

“I didn’t really have any clear indication that it was not going to go through,” BKW Superintendent Paul Dorward told The Enterprise on Tuesday night after the results were announced. He was hired last summer, so this was his first attempt at passing a BKW budget. The rural district, with a limited commercial tax base, has faced many budget defeats in the past.

Now that the budget has been voted down, the BKW school board has three options: It can put the same budget up for a second vote; to put a revised budget up for vote in June; or go to a contingency plan with a state-set spending cap. After the 2010-11 budget was voted down in a landslide last year, the district moved immediately to adopt a contingency budget, which spent the exact same amount when factoring in salary adjustments and costs of office equipment, while reducing the tax hike by two-tenths of a percent.

Business Official Kevin Callagy shared some details on Wednesday of what adopting a contingency budget would entail. The school board will meet on Monday, May 23, to discuss the district’s next course of action.

“One of the classes had done the exit poll,” said Dorward, “so we will be looking to glean any information from that.” The district will have to determine whether the negative votes came from parents frustrated with cuts, or from taxpayers upset over not enough cuts — or both.

Maureen Sikule, who received 519 votes on Tuesday night to keep her seat on the school board, added, “I’m a bit surprised that the voter turnout was lower than last year; I expected it to be about the same.”

Sikule has been on the school board since 2005, and was the board president this year.

“It was really close,” she said of the budget vote.

Vocal BKW resident Vasilios Lefkaditis was the only other candidate on the ballot, and was elected to the school board with 501 votes in his first political run. He has served for the past two years on BKW’s newly formed budget advisory committee.

“I’m happy about the outcome, but I am a bit surprised,” Lefkaditis said of his win Tuesday night. “I thought the other candidates ran a great campaign. I thought it was going to be much closer.”

David Lendrum, a teacher with deep family roots in the Hilltowns, and Gerald Larghe, a United States Marine Reserves Officer, launched write-in campaigns in the weeks leading up to the election. Lendrum secured 205 write-in votes, and Larghe, 79 write-in votes. There was also one write-in vote for Leo Vane, another for Joseph Shahen, and another for “Norray,” with no first name.

Now that he has secured a seat on the board, Lefkaditis hopes to make some changes in how the district is run.

“I’m not a politician; they weren’t campaign promises; they were what I feel in my heart, and I’m going to follow through,” said Lefkaditis, who manages Shaw Funding. “I’m going to hold people accountable. I’m going to bring transparency. The taxpayers have a right to know what goes on with their board. Up until now, there’s this veil of secrecy that must be lifted, and I plan on lifting it.”

Lefkaditis has been adamant in asking for concessions from the BKW Teachers’ Association. The board and the teachers’ union are currently at an impasse, while the teachers have been working under a contract that expired in June 2009. Salaries and benefits for district employees make up 70 percent of the school budget. He has also pushed for more openness with regard to contract negotiations.

“They think I’m their worst nightmare,” said Lefkaditis. “That’s what people tell me, and I can see it in their faces. I don’t know why they think that; we just do things differently.”

Also on Tuesday, the bus proposition, which will spend $230,000 on two 28-passenger wheelchair buses and one 66-passenger bus, passed with 522 residents in favor, and 404 opposed. State aid will reimburse about 70 percent of the costs.

What went down

BKW is expecting $8.7 million in state aid — $7.1 million in program aid, and $1.6 million in building aid — with an additional $384,463 in revenue coming from the federal education jobs fund, and $158,058 from gap elimination adjustment (GEA) restoration.

The failed 2011-12 budget would have used $1 million from the district’s unexpended fund balance, commonly referred to as its rainy-day fund. School districts, by law, can keep no more than 4 percent of the next year’s total budget in an unexpended fund balance.

Total costs for instruction at BKW were down by 5.3 percent, from $9.6 million this year, to $9.1 million in the adopted 2011-12 budget. Transportation costs, on the other hand, rose by 4 percent, from $1.53 million, to $1.6 million.

Employee benefits increased by $608,605, from $5.7 million, to $6.3 million.

Also, New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, earlier this month, certified amounts from districts’ employee benefits accrued liability reserves, or EBALR funds, that can be used by school districts to offset budget cuts; BKW, the only district in Albany County on DiNapoli’s list, will use $200,000 of its $494,224 reserve to fund next year’s budget.

EBALR funds go towards post-employment pay for accrued and unused sick leave, holiday leave, vacation leave, time allowance granted in lieu of overtime compensation, and other forms of leave time.

The budget also proposed the following staff cuts and reductions, saving a total of $240,370:

— Cutting a part-time English teacher who works eight-tenths of full-time, saving $63,348;

— Cutting a part-time math teacher who works six-tenths of full-time, saving $44,688;

— Cutting a part-time science teacher who works four-tenths of full-time, saving $19,962;

— Reducing a full-time social studies teacher to two-tenths of full-time, saving $12,516;

— Reducing a full-time math teacher to four-tenths of full-time, saving $19,962; and

— Cutting a full-time science position, saving $79,894. The board approved Sheila Martin’s leave of absence from this position on Monday, and she will not be replaced this year.

The budget also proposed to cut the following junior varsity sports teams, saving a total of $12,958: boys’ and girls’ soccer, cheerleading, softball, and baseball.

What’s in

a contingency?

According to Callagy, a contingency plan would total $20,864,904, a decrease of $53,073 from the budget that was voted down on Tuesday, but would mean an increase of $1.2 million from the current budget.

That $53,000 difference, he went on, is made up by three components.

“There are our non-contractual employees; any raise that was built into the budget for them, we’d have to take out,” said Callagy. “That same group, because we’re on a contingency budget this year, that group didn’t get raises.”

Non-contractual employees include clerical staff, building mechanics, transportation mechanics, the food-service supervisor, and the transportation supervisor. Their raises account for $21,073 of the total reduction from the adopted budget, Callagy said.

And, a total of $7,000, divided among the different offices in the district, which would have gone towards the purchase non-essential equipment, would be taken out of the budget. Callagy gave an example of a non-essential equipment purchase.

“If I’m sitting here thinking, ‘Boy, I’d love a new computer on my desk,’ but the one I have is working, we wouldn’t be able to replace that,” Callagy explained. “But, if my computer crashes, it probably could be ruled that it’s essential for the business official to have a new computer. It really depends on the reason for buying the new equipment. So, we have $7,000 between the different offices for that kind of stuff.”

And, under the defeated plan, $25,000 would have been transferred into a fund for the district’s food-service program, but state guidelines for contingency budgets prevent that transfer, said Callagy.

“It doesn’t mean we’re not going to have a food program,” he said. “We’ll have to look to make adjustments in the budget itself for food service because it’s not in the general fund.”

He went on, “There are still other sources of revenue. There are reimbursements we’ve received; reimbursements for kids that qualify for free lunch; reimbursements for meals that qualify for reduced lunch. We’d have to look at that. You only get the reimbursement based on the number of meals in each category.”

The adoption of a contingency plan also affects the public use of district facilities.

“There are some other guidelines that we would have to follow in terms of making sure that, if there’s community use of the buildings, that it’s not at a loss to the district,” said Callagy. “So, the community would have to pay if they need custodial services, which I think we do anyways. It does affect how we have to calculate the rental fees for using school facilities. If there are any either direct or indirect costs for allowing the community use of the building, then we have to charge for that.”

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