Planning for ‘the perfect storm’
“The future of the school district will be decided on the second Thursday of every month between now and April,” said Eldred Central School (ECS) superintendent Robert Dufour during a recent interview exploring the long-term impacts of the contingency budget now in place at ECS. “The community’s attendance is crucial.”
“Each meeting will be more important than the one before,” added Dufour. “Every decision reflective of the running of these schools is made at the board meetings.”
ECS is now operating under a contingency budget, following the proposed budget’s defeat in May by 18 votes. Dufour detailed some of the impacts. “We can’t purchase any equipment costing more than $1,000, can’t give raises to anyone not covered under a collective bargaining agreement, must eliminate non-essential maintenance and not pursue capital projects except in case of an emergency.”
The defeated $18 million budget has been stripped of $1.2 million dollars, resulting in a final budget of $16.5 million. Most of the cuts are coming from necessary repairs that were slated for the George Ross Mackenzie Elementary School in Glen Spey. A full-size school bus and van, part of the long-term vehicle update plan at the district, have also been eliminated.
Community groups that seek to use the buildings after hours or on weekends will now have to pay a facilities use fee of $150 for a 2-hour minimum usage, as established last month by the board at its monthly meeting.
Additional discussion about the fitness center will take place due to operating costs for salaries, electricity, air conditioning and heat. “The board will discuss whether it should be spending approximately $40,000 annually, even though it benefits the community, when we’re looking to possibly discontinue programs because we’re on a contingency budget,” said ECS board president Douglas Reiser.
“Our primary charge is to provide education,” said Dufour. “There are a lot of things people are used to the district doing that we may not be able to do any more. The fitness center is a great service for the community, but we have to balance what that expense would buy if we reapplied it educationally.”
While developing the 2011-12 budget, Dufour and ECS school business administrator William Thornton realized that a more serious set of issues is on the horizon with the approach of the 2012-13 budget.
When voters rejected a referendum to establish a repair reserve fund of $2 million for the third time, the board decided that the money would be returned on the tax levy. “We had cautioned the board that with what was going on in Albany and the potentiality of a tax cap, we could be facing the perfect storm, having to return two million dollars on the levy, and then being restricted by what can be raised in taxes.
That perfect storm has come together and we’re looking at a significant budget shortfall for the 2012-13 school year.
Currently, Dufour and Thornton are working to reduce expenditures without reducing staff and programming. “But we also need to do what’s fiscally prudent, so we’re looking at every program to see that they’re necessary, beneficial and cost-effective,” he said. “We’re going to be faced with a lot of very difficult decisions as we go through this budget process.
Potential outcomes include elimination of classes that don’t reach enrollment standards. “If we don’t meet the minimum numbers for a class, we won’t be able to run it,” said Dufour. “Enrollment in the Pre-K program is down by half. We’ve started discussing the possibility of reducing our Pre-K to a half-day program and that would have corresponding personnel reductions. It’s not something we want to do, but aid is tied to the number of students in the program and we’re losing half the aid.”
“Had the budget passed, we had earmarked where we could move forward without the potential of program or staff cuts,” added Reiser. “Where we’re at now, I don’t see any alternative. Our staffing levels are currently back down to the levels they were in 1999, and that was done through attrition.”
Under scrutiny will be things like driver’s ed, field trips and the sports program. “These are all important,” said Dufour. “Ultimately it’s the students that are affected.”
According to Reiser, there may be discussions about Kindergarten, which is not mandated, transportation (inside of a mile is not mandated), extracurricular activities and more. “The board is trying to be fiscally responsible by looking at any conceivable measure that will have the least impact on our children,” he said.
At the next board meeting on August 11, the tax levy will be set. Dufour will present a graphic that shows the 16.5 million budget, and the impacts of the tax levy, property tax cap and state aid. “A short presentation will be given to explain where that will leave us with regard to this budget so people can see what we’re facing. Subsequent meetings will lead to discussions on how we’re going to address that.” Dufour can be reached at email@example.com or 845/456-1100.