OSWEGO, NY – It’s coming down to the wire for the Oswego School Board to agree on a budget; one that they can feel comfortable presenting to the public. With about a week to go until a budget must be approved, the board members agree – there is still a lot more work to do.
Superintendent Ben Halsey shared some new budget figures with the board, based on recommendations members made following the April 9 workshop.
“The new number is lower than the number we were operating on last week,” he said.
A big part of the budget is a $1.5 million increase in legal bills; with the majority of that to deal with a major challenge from the nuclear power plants.
“We feel that we’re very close to being able to finalize that deal,” Halsey said. “We can make a reduction in our legal fees. But, I am cautious to remove the whole 1.5 because if in the eleventh and a half hour something goes south we’re still going to need some funds.”
“What we did, and what we were instructed to do, was cut supplies 10 percent across the board,” Business Administrator Nancy Squairs explained. “In doing that, we did notice that there were some groups that would be harmed by the 10 percent reduction in their supply budget. So there are some places where we did not reduce supplies.”
“We’re talking across the board here. It’s not just pencils and erasers,” Halsey added. “We’re talking about all departments. We’re not singling out anyone.”
All of the schools’ field trips have been cut from the budget, Squairs said.
“We talk about and look at areas like field trips; and we all know their value academically and to the well-rounded experience that we provide for our students. It’s tough times and we’ve got to make those cuts,” Halsey said.
Reductions in the area of staffing include two administrators at the high school, according to Squairs.
“The proposal is to take the two assistant principal positions that we currently have and reduce them to 10-month employees rather than eliminating one of them completely,” the superintendent said, adding that it would mean some “significant” savings.
Employee benefits have been reduced as a result of the staffing level. The special education team leader has been reduced from the budget. Intramurals funding has been reduced to properly reflect what the costs are to that program.
Two physical education won’t be replaced in the 2015-16 budget.
The assistant transportation supervisor was in the original budget plan twice. The extra line was removed; the position is still in the budget, Squairs explained. The same has been done for some duplication in the costs for testing, she added.
“In total, we have reduced the budget $1.9 million,” she said. “The current projected draft 3 budget is $84,398,675 million.
“If we’re reducing the number of positions that we have etc, we’re going to have to take this to the public, then I don’t think we should have nine contractual raises in the budget,” board member Tom DeCastro said. “Nobody’s said anything about taking those out yet.”
The district will again dip into its reserves to help balance the budget. “I’m very hesitant to do that,” Halsey said. “But, I’m not sure we have any options.”
Right now they are looking at a levy estimate of 40.75 % as discussed at Thursday’s workshop. This is a direct result of lost revenue from the nuclear power plant agreement, Halsey noted.
That is based on the current assessed value. That value will change once the tax rolls come out; and it’s also based on equalization rate for each of the municipalities of 100 percent and may also change, the business administrator noted.
What would a 40 percent increase do to the tax rate? Board member Sam Tripp asked.
“On a $100,000 home, it would raise taxes $566 and your tax rate would go from 19.80 to 25.50 per $1,000,” Squairs said.
According to the state regulations, the district would still be under the tax cap, Halsey said.
“This increase on a $100,000 home will be refunded to the homeowner in the fall,” he pointed out. “Just like it was this year. That’s an important piece to keep in mind. Wherever we settle on a tax levy increase, we will be within our tax cap.”
If the current tentative spending is rejected by the voters, and the district went to a contingency budget, “it would cost us to make another $6 in reductions on top of what we already showed you today,” the superintendent told the board. And there’d still be a tax increase of $227.66 for an owner of a $100,000 home,” he said. “Even if we go out with the exact same budget number that we’re operating under this year.”
“There is nothing left in this budget, after the reductions that we’ve made, unless you want to start looking at positions that we could reasonably cut from this budget,” Squairs pointed out.
“It puts us in a challenging situation,” Halsey said.
“When does it stop? Every year it keeps going up and up and up. I mean at some point, we’re just a small district, it’s not going to be able to survive,” said Lynda Sereno, board vice president.
“Everybody’s in the same boat as us, Tripp said.
He doesn’t see the board going out to the public with the current budget plan.
“If we can pick up a half a million here and a half a million there (in reductions – savings) we need to do that. We need to be looking for that,” he said. “What we’re going to adopt is a number and we have to live within that number. We can change, we can move stuff around; but we can’t change the number once we approve it.”
“We’re asking our teachers etc to do more with less. We can do the same thing with the administration. They might have to hustle a little more to do evaluations … that would help sell this budget as far as the public is concerned,” DeCastro said.
“I think every move we make going forward, reductions, will have an impact on class size, what we offer across the district … I think what we did last year got us to the point where we have staff of our size school and what we value as a community that we want to continue to offer. Any move we make no going forward, reducing things, you’re going to bump class sizes, you’re going to eliminate some electives – it’s going to be felt by our students and staff,” the superintendent cautioned.
Even holding the budget flat, the district would still be asking for a ‘significant’ levy increase, due to a variety of reasons, he said.
People will be lining up advocating for their positions, while others will be advocating for lower taxes, he added.
“I firmly believe anything we go further than what we’ve already presented to you is going to have an impact. We have to be prepared for that,” he said. “I don’t think we have excesses lying around at this point.”
Sereno pointed out the board is discussing the budget in public, “trying to get it down to a manageable level. We’ve been working hard.”
Continuation of the budget discussion will likely dominate the board’s April 21 meeting.
According to the state, the board has until April 24 to adopt a budget proposal. A special meeting might be scheduled between the 21st and 24th to adopt the budget, the superintendent said.
A public hearing on the proposed spending plan will be held at the board’s May 5 meeting, which is slated to be held at the OHS cafeteria.
Halsey said he will give several presentations around the district before that meeting.