Oswego School Chief Talks Budget

OSWEGO, NY – With the Oswego City School District’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.

Bill Crist
Bill Crist

“It’s an interesting dynamic that we’re all living in, the state and even the nation, in terms of financial woes people are experiencing,” he said. “I have a level of confidence to know that we’re passing along a zero percent tax levy increase to the community. I think that’s enticing to people to know that we’re doing everything we can locally to keep costs down,” he said.

What a person’s property is assessed at is the piece that is out of the district’s control, he noted.

“We can’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,” he said.

The board of education’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 doesn’t he said.

“There are transfers that take place at the board level, during the year, because of the need to move ‘field trip gas money’ to field trip driver money,’ for example,” he pointed out.

The original number that came from the board was, ‘we would like to see you reduce the administrative staffing by four.’ That was in the process when there was an elementary school to be repurposed. So, one of the cuts was an elementary principal that wasn’t going to return. After speaking with other administration from throughout the district, I proposed we’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,” 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.

“My 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,” he said. “I have a responsibility to the entire district to make sure there is an appropriate coverage by adults in all of the buildings.”

Crist said he didn’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.

“We’ve frozen the levy for three years now. My (original) proposal was that we increase 2.5 percent on the levy. We’re losing $1.1 million in aid. That 2.5 percent on the levy would have brought in about $715,000,” 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.

“I don’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,” the superintendent said.

“Those quality improvements go al long way for putting kids in a safe and health environment to be learning in,” he said. “It’s money well-spent. But now it’s time we need to begin repaying that. So that is part of the additional increase (to the budget).”

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.

“At 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 we’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.”

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 – 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 “a mess,” he added.

Next year, the state deficit is going to be $14.3 billion and when he does the math, Crist says that “only translates into less aid for Oswego.” So, if it’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.

“So, how does that get made up? We either reduce programs or we increase taxes. The ace in the hole is what’s happening out at Nine Mile, and it’s tentative – it’s too early to talk about that right now,” Crist said. “It would be inappropriate to talk about how that will impact us because I really don’t know how that’s going to impact us.”

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.

“The answer is simply no. You can’t continue to provide equal to or better programming without some support at the local level,” he said.

“Some areas we can impact; we’re going to be negotiating with all of our bargaining units at the end of this next year,” 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.

It’s not a “scare tactic,” the superintendent said.

“Under 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?” he explained. “So, as you look at that, are there other areas that we could cut? Sure there are. But it comes down to we’re in the people business (the majority of our budget is made up of salaries and benefits) you’re not going to get that by cutting field trips. You won’t get that by not purchasing paper products.”

The district’s administrators work hard, Crist said, to make sure things are done appropriately, that they’re done according to the law and that they’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.

“But, you know what? If you look at our graduation rates or test score results at the elementary and middle level, you’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,” he said.

The state bases its graduation figures on students who graduate high school in four years.

It doesn’t take into account those who earn a GED.

It doesn’t take into account those who graduate in five years.

“It’s frustrating. (A school district’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 wouldn’t be counted under the state’s cohort),” he said.

“Our mission is to produce productive members of society, preparing students to be productive members of society,” he continued. “If it takes four years, great. If it takes five years, then haven’t we been successful in doing that? Some kids just need the extra time.”

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 district’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 Clerk’s Office, 341-2020.


  1. The proposed budgetary increases are beyond outrageous. Again, look at the facts here folks. OCSD raises its budget by 8.78%, while statewide, districts are increasing their budgets by only 1.07% on average. If we allow Bill Crist to continue spending our money like a drunken sailor, the tax increases will hit very hard very soon. Administrative cuts are desperately needed and the only way that can be done is to defeat the budget.

    It is a joke to see Crist say that the additions to the high school are about safety and education. What does a building addition for declining enrollment do to help education? What do flat screen TV’s add to the safety of the school?

    The 0 tax levy increase is deceptive at best. They want to make that the issue, while they slide in a 30-40% increase next year. Make your vote about the spending.

    I agree with Bill over the issue of getting concessions from the greedy unions. In order to gain leverage over these powerful organizations, one helpful step would be to defeat the budget.

    If we let the school district continue its business as usual, we will pay the price. Maybe not this year, but not long after that, we will pay the price. It is of paramount importance that we defeat this budget. The district made absolutely no cuts to deal with rising expenses that benefit nobody but the teachers. Meanwhile, districts statewide did what needed to be done.

  2. Do you know that non-mandated programs include art, music, librarians, clubs, and sports? Do you know that these will be the first items to go K-12 if we defeat this budget? Do you know that there is no way to predict what our levy will be in a year, five years, or ten years? We cannot punish our kids by voting no. That makes no sense to me. I fully believe a school should be closed, but I am willing to wait a year for that to happen and still pay the same taxes I have been paying. We should be more worried about the state’s budget and taxes than our local budget. Vote yes for our kids!

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