OSWEGO, NY â€“ With the Oswego City School Districtâ€™s budget vote less than a week away, Superintendent Bill Crist is cautiously optimist that the voters will approve the $74,848,045 spending plan.
â€œItâ€™s an interesting dynamic that weâ€™re all living in, the state and even the nation, in terms of financial woes people are experiencing,â€ he said. â€œI have a level of confidence to know that weâ€™re passing along a zero percent tax levy increase to the community. I think thatâ€™s enticing to people to know that weâ€™re doing everything we can locally to keep costs down,â€ he said.
What a personâ€™s property is assessed at is the piece that is out of the districtâ€™s control, he noted.
â€œWe canâ€™t control whether your taxes go up or down from that standpoint. But we can put a tax levy out there that is zero or close to that,â€ he said.
The board of educationâ€™s responsibility is to approve the number, the amount of money that is allocated for a school year, he explained.
The components within the budget might change, but the amount doesnâ€™t he said.
â€œThere are transfers that take place at the board level, during the year, because of the need to move â€˜field trip gas moneyâ€™ to field trip driver money,â€™ for example,â€ he pointed out.
The original number that came from the board was, â€˜we would like to see you reduce the administrative staffing by four.â€™ That was in the process when there was an elementary school to be repurposed. So, one of the cuts was an elementary principal that wasnâ€™t going to return. After speaking with other administration from throughout the district, I proposed weâ€™d also cut the director of grants and partnerships, the position of director of security and moving a high school assistant principal into the (vacant) position of assistant principal at the middle school,â€ he said.
The decision was made to not close a school.
The board then came back and said it wanted to retain the director of security position. In lieu of that, they proposed cutting the position of School Resource Officer.
â€œMy position was that I value what the SRO has done. I welcomed the fact that the person was in full uniform. I think it made a statement to the students,â€ he said. â€œI have a responsibility to the entire district to make sure there is an appropriate coverage by adults in all of the buildings.â€
Crist said he didnâ€™t feel comfortable removing both an SRO and an assistant principal from the school. It would have been detrimental to safety and security, he noted.
Administrators today have more of a presence in the schools, he added.
When you freeze the tax levy there is always the potential that a tax increase is possible down the road, Crist admits.
â€œWeâ€™ve frozen the levy for three years now. My (original) proposal was that we increase 2.5 percent on the levy. Weâ€™re losing $1.1 million in aid. That 2.5 percent on the levy would have brought in about $715,000,â€ he said.
That would have still left around $3 million to make up, he pointed out.
A couple of years ago, voters approved a capital project of $48.2 million.
This year, there is a $3.8 million in debt service payment the district has to pay as a result.
â€œI donâ€™t think anyone would argue the benefits that have come from those capital improvements. New HVAC at the high school (that replaced units more than 35 years old), a new dining hall at the high school (that allows for some scheduling changes at OHS), new 21st Century science classrooms (that bring us out of the 1970s and into the year 2010) and the improvements that are taking place at the middle school, the security entrances at all the elementary schools. All of those are good things to do,â€ the superintendent said.
â€œThose quality improvements go al long way for putting kids in a safe and health environment to be learning in,â€ he said. â€œItâ€™s money well-spent. But now itâ€™s time we need to begin repaying that. So that is part of the additional increase (to the budget).â€
The district has put into place the use of surplus, proposed at this point as being just over $880,000, that will be left over at the end of this budget year in terms of appropriations, the superintendent noted.
Additionally, they have other funds, part of which is coming from the tax certiorari reserve, to offset increases.
Could there be a tax spike?
There could be, Crist admits.
â€œAt the same time we have yet to settle the tentative agreement with Nine Mile I. That could be a $4 million increase from last year to this year in terms of what weâ€™re getting. That could help as we plan for the 2011-12 budget. Is the (tax hike) risk out there? Sure the risk is out there. But I think if we artificially maintain a low tax rate, tax levy, that at some point the bubble is going to burst. So you have to be cautious about that.â€
When he proposed the 2.5 percent increase, based on the lost state aid, based on the addition of debt service into the budget, Crist says he felt that was a reasonable request â€“ even though many members of the community are stressed at this time because of unemployment or other issues.
And, the situation with the state is â€œa mess,â€ he added.
Next year, the state deficit is going to be $14.3 billion and when he does the math, Crist says that â€œonly translates into less aid for Oswego.â€ So, if itâ€™s $1.1 million this coming year, he estimates it could be as much as $2.5 million to $3.5 million in lost aid.
â€œSo, how does that get made up? We either reduce programs or we increase taxes. The ace in the hole is whatâ€™s happening out at Nine Mile, and itâ€™s tentative â€“ itâ€™s too early to talk about that right now,â€ Crist said. â€œIt would be inappropriate to talk about how that will impact us because I really donâ€™t know how thatâ€™s going to impact us.â€
The district will hold a public hearing in the tentative agreement on May 18; the town of Scriba will hold a meeting the following evening.
Can the district continue to give zero tax increases to the community?
In light of the cost of just about everything going up these days, Crist said that would be difficult.
â€œThe answer is simply no. You canâ€™t continue to provide equal to or better programming without some support at the local level,â€ he said.
â€œSome areas we can impact; weâ€™re going to be negotiating with all of our bargaining units at the end of this next year,â€ he added.
Contracts for CSEA (civil service), OCTA (teachers) and COASA (supervisors) will be ending at the end of the 2011 school year.
Contract negotiations with AAP (administrators) are presently under way.
The district hopes to get some concessions on salary increases and health insurance contributions, he noted.
Under a contingency budget, non-mandated program are subject to potential cuts and elimination.
Itâ€™s not a â€œscare tactic,â€ the superintendent said.
â€œUnder a contingency budget, we look at programs that are mandated, programs that are not mandated. What do you need to graduate from high school? What do you need to be a middle school student? What do you need at the elementary level?â€ he explained. â€œSo, as you look at that, are there other areas that we could cut? Sure there are. But it comes down to weâ€™re in the people business (the majority of our budget is made up of salaries and benefits) youâ€™re not going to get that by cutting field trips. You wonâ€™t get that by not purchasing paper products.â€
The districtâ€™s administrators work hard, Crist said, to make sure things are done appropriately, that theyâ€™re done according to the law and that theyâ€™re done at a level of expectation that this district and school board want to uphold.
There is no magic bullet to make things great overnight, he pointed out.
â€œBut, you know what? If you look at our graduation rates or test score results at the elementary and middle level, youâ€™ll see that there is trending data that clearly shows that the things that are happening, the instructional strategies and the accountability that is in place is working. We are showing consistent trending gains in all of those areas, including graduation rates,â€ he said.
The state bases its graduation figures on students who graduate high school in four years.
It doesnâ€™t take into account those who earn a GED.
It doesnâ€™t take into account those who graduate in five years.
â€œItâ€™s frustrating. (A school districtâ€™s) goal is to make our students productive members of society. If it takes four years, great. If it takes three years, that is even better; we have kids on half-day passes that are taking college credits (at SUNY Oswego). They will walk into their freshman year of college as almost sophomores (and they wouldnâ€™t be counted under the stateâ€™s cohort),â€ he said.
â€œOur mission is to produce productive members of society, preparing students to be productive members of society,â€ he continued. â€œIf it takes four years, great. If it takes five years, then havenâ€™t we been successful in doing that? Some kids just need the extra time.â€
He said he wished the state looked at it as ‘all things being equal, how do we kids to graduate, period.’
His goal is to have all students graduate in (at least) four years, he added.
The districtâ€™s 2010 Budget Newsletter began arriving in mailboxes Tuesday. It contains more budget information.
The entire budget in available on-line at www.oswego.org
For more information, contact the District Clerkâ€™s Office, 341-2020.