by Thaddeus Flint
With only a few days remaining for the Berlin Central School District to approve a 2013-2014 budget, the Board of Education failed to agree on the latest draft budget at Tuesday’s meeting and will now reconvene Thursday for last minute discussions.
Perhaps one of the reasons for a lack of consensus was a lack of Board members; Frank Zwack, Alan Webster Jr., and Bev Stewart were absent from the meeting. [private]An emergency budget meeting has now been scheduled for April 25 at 9 pm at the High School, but there seemed to be some doubt Tuesday as to which Board members would be able to attend. A budget must be approved by Friday as the Property Tax Report Card, which will include information on the future tax levy, is due at the State Education Department by April 27.
District Superintendent Dr. Stephen Young’s presentation of the latest draft budget to the diminished Board was not met with enthusiasm. A projected tax levy increase of 1.94% (around $165,000) to cover a budget $423,000 more than last year’s was pronounced “unsustainable” by Board Member John Nash. Board President Jim Willis said, “It looks like we need an emergency meeting.”
The largest increase in operating expenses is one the District has little control over: Personnel Benefits. Health insurance will jump by 8.39% to almost $2.59 million, FICA (Social Security) will go up 7.25%, NYS Employees Retirement increases 26%, and NYS Teachers Retirement skyrockets 48.57% to $1.1 million. All together benefits are expected to cost the District almost $5 million, which comes to almost 28% of the budget.
Increases to salaries could bring that $5 million closer to $14 million. Teaching staff expenses would increase by 5.23%, and Administrator expenses would increase .04%. Support service staff expenditures however would drop by 3.28%. Together, salaries and benefits, would increase 7% or $915,000.
“The majority of the budget goes to personnel and benefits, and there is very little wiggle room,” conceded Young. “Sometimes they do spiral out of control.”
Sometimes they come from budget additions. In Young’s current plan a Mental Health Professional, a Librarian and two part time lunch monitors would be added to the elementary school. A math teacher and a Credit Recovery Teacher Coordinator would be added to the Middle School/ High School and a Data Analyst Consultant would added to the District.
At the same time there are planned reductions. Currently two full time Teacher’s Assistants, one health office position and two part time clerical/monitor positions face the ax. Two monitors and a senior typist will retire and will not be replaced. A school nurse will travel between the two functioning schools in the District.
The total projected budget at the moment comes to $17,861,948, which is 2.43% higher than last year’s. Approximately $150,000 of revenue would come from the District’s reserves. The Fund Balance is expected to provide $574,000.
“We cannot continue to add personnel and benefits to this budget,” said Nash, who also questioned the wisdom of spending from the District’s savings. His fellow Board members were largely silent upon conclusion of Young’s presentation.
Nash had done some calculations. With 791 students in the District, a budget of this size brings per student costs to around $23,000 a year. Most of the private schools in the area “don’t charge $23,000 a year,” pointed out Nash. He cited the Pine Cobble school in Williamstown as an example with tuition at $12,000 a year. “I am not supporting this budget,” said Nash. Quoting his fellow Board Member, Frank Zwack, with whom Nash is usually at odds, he added, “We need to do more with less.”
School Within A School
While Nash will not support the budget he made it clear he supports the School Within A School program. Word seems to have gotten out that this program, which works with students at risk of dropping out or who just need a more personal instructional environment, might not exist next year.
Teacher Lou Amendolara had spoken earlier in the night in defense of the School Within A School. “When you have a program that works you stick with it,” Amendolara said. “I think it’s been a great success.”
Nash didn’t disagree with that, but he wants more data to be certain it really is a success before more money is budgeted to it. In the meantime it can stay the way it is.
Some residents in the District have opted to budget no money at all for any programs. A query from Willis found that the tax collector is still missing around a million dollars in school taxes. Rensselaer County does however reimburse the missing amount to the School District while it goes after these tax dodgers.
Some residents, on the other hand, would be willing to pay more taxes if only they could get out of the District. Attorney Malcolm McPherson, of the Averill Park firm Schulman, Howard, and McPherson, appeared before the Board representing a couple who live in Poestenkill but who are districted in Berlin. McPherson’s clients, who work in the Albany area, would prefer that their children’s schools weren’t so far away. They would like to be re-districted to Averill Park.
Residents of Grafton and the outer boundaries of Stephentown would probably sympathize with that request. Therein might lie the problem. If the BCS Board lets one family out, where do they draw the line? What if everyone wants out? The Albany Business Review ranking of 85 Capital Region school districts shows that every neighboring District is rated higher than BCS. By being redistricted a family might not only increase the educational opportunities for their children but also increase the value of their property because it now belongs to a higher rated district.
McPherson asked that the Board think the matter over and possibly add it to next month’s agenda. He did say, at least informally, that Averill Park is “open and interested” to the idea, which is hardly a surprise as every school district in the state is “open and interested” in getting more tax dollars.
Candidates For The Board
While the Board mulls over this possible exodus and their lack of a budget, residents can begin to mull over whom they might like to represent their interests at future Board meetings. Elections will be held May 17 for the three seats occupied by Nash, Stewart and Webster Jr. This year a good portion of the School Board could be replaced by a good portion of previous school boards. Three petitions for the Board seats were submitted by Rachel Finney (Stephentown), Elizabeth Miller (Berlin) and Jeffrey Paine (Petersburgh/Grafton). If these names sound familiar it’s because they are all experienced BCS School Board members from the recent past. Finney was replaced by current Board Member Katie Fiske, Miller by Willis and Paine by Webster Jr. As of July 1, depending on how residents vote, BCS could quite possibly be back to the future.[/private]
by Thaddeus Flint