Weekly Feature



2017-02-01 / Front Page

First 2017-18 school budget estimate sees total of $80.2 million

by ETHAN POWERS
Editor

Clarence Central Schools Superintendent Geoffrey Hicks provided the public’s first look into the district’s budget process for the 2017-18 school year at the Board of Education’s meeting on Monday night, and if the first projections are any indication, Hicks and the board plan on using a combination of revenues, state aid and reserves to stay within the tax cap.

Hicks displayed a total estimate of $80.2 million for the 2017-18 budget — an approximately $2 million increase from last year — with a roughly $800,000 increase in the tax levy, denoting a 1.7 percent rise.

The superintendent outlined Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s first state budget draft, which features $1 billion in total aid for districts across the state. Cuomo has proposed a $428 million increase in foundation aid, with $50 million set aside for community schools that are struggling financially — a category for which Clarence does not qualify.

What is worrying, Hicks says, is that the budget repeals the existing formula used to calculate foundation aid and replaces it with a new formula created by the governor and less favorable to districts such as Clarence.

The existing formula has been in place since 2007 when the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, a not-for-profit public schools advocacy organization, won a 13-year lawsuit against the City of New York. The group wanted to ensure that the education finance system would provide adequate funds and resources to students in public schools throughout the state and lessen the dominance that schools in New York City seemed to have on the budget process.

“What the governor is proposing in his foundation aid formula is to get rid of the old formula and replace it with his own,” Hicks said. “Essentially, that gets rid of the idea that the state owes school districts money from past budgets.”

The governor’s new formula proposes that each district receive the aid number that it received in 2016-17, plus a base increase ranging anywhere from 1 to 15 percent depending upon the needs of each district.

The budget proposal outlined by Cuomo falls well short of the aid numbers recommended by the Educational Conference Board and the Board of Regents, which recommended a budget of $2 billion and $2.1 billion, respectively. Hicks noted that under the current proposal, the $4 billion that is owed to school districts as a result of foundation aid being underfunded since 2008 is not made available.

Cuomo is also seeking unilateral power to make midyear budget changes to education aid, should there be a shortfall in state revenues.

“This is something that would make it extraordinarily hard for school districts to budget if we were counting on a particular amount of aid, if we set our budget that was voted on by the community, and then the governor cut it,” Hicks said. “I can recall only one midyear adjustment to aid in the history of the last 50 years, and that was in 1991.”

As the Board of Education meets with legislators, its primary focus will be the full restoration of the district’s foundation aid.

“The biggest thing we’ll advocate for are additional dollars to foundation aid,” Hicks said. “There’s a bunch of money in the governor’s proposal for things that did not exist prior to this year. Our thought is, put the money in foundation aid and let school districts utilize it before you start funding additional things.”

Hicks added that the district would also like to see a sustainable and predictable formula for calculating foundation aid, as well as a remedy that will fix the anomalies of the tax cap and a de-linking of school aid to teacher evaluations, which Hicks described as “a mistake.”

Clarence has remained at or below the level of the property tax cap each year the cap has been in existence, which constrains the amount of revenue that can be raised from the district’s tax base. This becomes a major problem for a district such as Clarence in which property taxes are a major driver of school revenue.

Under the governor’s new formula, foundation aid to Clarence is 6 percent lower than if the normal formula were used to calculate aid.

Hicks estimates a 1.7 percent tax levy increase, which he believes will generate roughly $800,000 in revenue.

No reductions in staff and maintaining all existing

Hicks, programs are two of the primary budget goals for 2017-18, yet Hicks noted that the $800,000 generated from the tax levy will not be enough. The governor’s current budget does not provide enough aid to balance the budget year over year, but Hicks adamantly contended that the district will not propose a tax levy beyond the cap at 1.7 percent.

“We anticipated about a 3 percent increase in New York state school aid, but so far, there’sonlybeena1percent increase,” he said. “We’re going to have to count on our legislators to come through and provide us with more school aid, or we’re going to have to dip into our reserves.”

While retirement costs in the district are down, wages are up 3 percent, special education costs are up 2 percent and health care is up 5 percent. However, Hicks noted that self-funding has limited that increase as employees contribute more toward health care.

The 2017-18 budget should reflect the continuing health of the district, which overcame fiscal stress for a three-year period from 2011 to 2014 when 51 teacher positions and 50 other employees were cut. From 2015 to 2017, the district was able to add 15 teachers and six other positions.

Hicks told the audience that under current assumptions, there will not be any budget reductions for the 2017-18 school year — a representation, Hicks says, of the way in which the district has remained financially successfully through fiscal conservatism.

“If you take a look at the last nine years, our spending increase has averaged a little under 2 percent and our tax levy has also averaged under 2 percent,” he said. “There’s not many districts in the state that could show you a chart that will have those numbers.”

The 2017-18 budget will also add buses to the district’s fleet. The purchase plan includes five 72- seat passenger buses, two wheelchair vans and two 30-seat passenger buses.

“We’ve now gone five years in a row purchasing buses. There will be no impact on the tax levy for doing this,” Hicks said. “One debt will come off, another debt will come on. We’re in that cycle now where there’s no impact for bus purchases.”

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