January 25, 2011
First community budget forum draws more than 200 in-person and online
More than 200 people — including 135 in the comfort of their own homes — joined the conversation surrounding the district’s 2011-12 budget on Monday night as the first of two community forums were held.
For the first time this year, the district is webcasting the forums, giving community members the opportunity to participate from home through an interactive video and chat interface.
Superintendent Michael Tebbano and Chief Business and Financial Officer Judith Kehoe opened the forum with some context for the development of next year’s budget: The district expects to again see a loss of state aid; the prolonged economic downturn is affecting families and taxpayers; and costs continue to rise, including salaries, health benefits, and mandated pension contributions.
As a result of these factors, the district projects a worse-case scenario budget gap of about $5 million. This gap is essentially the difference between anticipated revenue and the expenses that would be required to provide all current programs and services next year.
The budget gap projection assumes a tax levy increase of 2 percent, which is in line with Governor Andrew Cuomo’s property tax levy cap proposal that has yet to be taken up by the Legislature.
Closing the shortfall between revenues and expenses will again require budget cuts, Dr. Tebbano said. He outlined a preliminary list of potential cuts, which included: about 20 teaching positions; an administrator; six or more support staff position; reductions to the Operations & Maintenance and Transportation department budgets. He stressed that this was a preliminary list, provided to bring the public into the discussion at an earlier point than ever before.
The forums are the start of a long budget process, which will continue with opportunities for community involvement with another forum on February 7 and then with the Board of Education’s budget development process in February and March.
Dr. Tebbano noted that relief from unfunded state mandates — items that are required of school districts but not funded — could go a long way toward helping the New York’s school districts preserve programs to a greater degree while also restraining property taxes and even meeting a tax cap. Absent this relief, he said the cuts to programs are likely to be significant statewide.
Unfunded mandates include contributions to the state’s pension system and a variety of special education and transportation regulations, among others.
After the presentation, Dr. Tebbano and Kehoe answered questions from both the live audience and those participating in the interactive webcast.
Many of the questions that they fielded related to the district looking into the possibility of closing Clarksville Elementary School for budget savings. Last week, Dr. Tebbano announced that the Board of Education had asked him to conduct a feasibility study on this issue, which was brought up this fall by the BC Fiscal Think Tank. With the study not yet complete, he said he was unable to answer many of the specific questions about the issue, but that the process would involve ample opportunity for public input and comprehensive public information. The next step in this process is the February 2 Board of Education meeting, where the timeline and decision-making criteria will be discussed, according to the superintendent.
At the Board meeting last week, administrators presented a plan that would put a personal computing device, such as a laptop, into the hands of all students in grades 5-12 in phases over the next five years. Securing the financing for the 5-year, $8 million program would require voter approval, and officials initially were targeting a referendum on the May 17 budget vote ballot. Dr. Tebbano noted that some of the initial community feedback, including at Monday’s forum, indicated that the goals of the plan were worth pursuing but the timing might not be right given the economic conditions. He said the district is continuing to consider the timing, as well as ways it could move forward with elements of the initiative in a way that would cost less or could be funded in other ways. More information on the status of this proposal will be presented in the coming weeks and public involvement will continue to be sought.