OSWEGO, NY – The Oswego School Board held a roundtable discussion Thursday regarding the budget process. While not a popular idea, board members admit, some staff reductions may be necessary if other options cannot be found.
The Oswego City School District has until April 24 to formulize the budget as it needs to be approved by that date in order to follow the requirements for the May 19 vote.
“We have some time. But there’s a lot of work ahead of us,” Superintendent Ben Halsey said. “We’ve got some work to do.”
“In this budget, the last time the superintendent and I presented it to you it was (almost) $85.4 million. This current budget draft 2 is at $86.3 million. It has gone up $946,455. The majority of that is due to positions that are currently vacancies that didn’t transfer in the negotiation module as a vacancy. Those positions are currently funded in the sub bucket,” Business Administrator Nancy Squairs explained.
They had to backfill the budget so the district didn’t lose those placeholders, she said.
So out of the $946,455 – it was about almost $700,000 of that is for positions that were vacancies as well as benefits that were added for those.
They have gone through the budget proposal and looked at where there might have been any duplications and crossovers, she said, adding, “We have tried to address those as well.”
There are some large items that are primarily responsible for the budget increase, the superintendent noted.
“We have a few pretty key things that are a significant dollar amount,” he said.
“From our current budget, $79.9 million, we have had to increase our health insurance expenditure $2 million for the ’15 – ’16 budget. That is taking into consideration all of our high-cost claims,” Squairs explained. “The district is self-insured for health insurance. We pay by claims. There are also some new costs.”
There were costs related to the Affordable Care Act that had to be included in the budget draft, she pointed out.
“Right now, in the current year, we are trending to be over our health insurance estimate by $1 million,” she said.
They have met with a company this week and may be able to find some cost savings in the prescription drug portion of the district’s health insurance plan, she added.
Another large 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 as well as debt service ($1 million), and contractual ($1 million).
“If we return to a PILOT (Payment In Lieu Of Taxes) agreement, that $1.5 million goes away,” Squairs said. “We can cut that from the budget.”
The rollover cost for salary and benefits, with the existing staff (with no reductions or increases), from this school year to the next would be $1.4 million.
“So if we go into next fall doing exactly what we are doing today with the exact same people that we have doing it, our increase is $1.5 million,” the superintendent said.
There have been some new positions added to the budget plan, Squairs said. Three team leaders, one for counseling, one for special ed and one for reading (stipends). Also an assistant director of transportation, a social studies teacher at OHS and an English teacher at OHS.
Also some teacher assistants have been requested and have been included in the draft budget, Squairs said.
She added that she hasn’t received the official list of all the potential retirees yet. She will meet with the personnel director and take out the retirees (and put in a placeholder to keep the position in the budget), she said.
That would make it a clearer projection for the board members to consider, said Lynda Sereno, board vice president.
“We’ve got 12 of them right now,” board member Sam Tripp said. “And, that’s $1 million.”
“We’re really trying to help you get this budget back to where we can go out to the public and support it,” Sereno said.
Part of the discussion also needs to be, do all the retirees need to be replaced, Squairs said.
Looking at the figures in the tentative spending plans that the superintendent has shared with the board, Tripp acquiesced that staff cuts are likely.
“We need a lot more information before making those kinds of decisions,” he said.
Board member Tom DeCastro said travel, unless absolutely necessary, should be removed from the budget.
Board travel was cut by 50 percent, Squairs said. However, if two new board members are elected this spring, they will have to attend school board training, she added.
“When we’re looking at a $6 million increase in the budget … the reality is we don’t have the money that we used to have. We just ‘hired’ positions and stipends. We don’t have the money anymore and that’s what everybody needs to understand,” Board President Kathleen Allen said. “It’s not something that is desirable for us; but, it’s going to be necessary.”
There are things the board could get out of the budget (like supplies and field trips) to help save jobs, DeCastro said.
“If we’re setting aside $1.5 million for legal counsel and dealing with the PILOT or whatever that is, it just infuriates me. Infuriates me as not only a board member but a community member,” Sereno said. “This should be able to be resolved so that we know what we have coming to us to service our children.”
“You’re preaching to the choir,” Tripp said. “It’s not us holding things up.”
The board needs to know what its goal is before it starts chopping away at things, board member Heather DelConte cautioned.
Any moves the district makes with staffing now, the students will notice it when they return to classes in the fall, the superintendent said.
“We are to that point now,” he said. “Now we’d get into the core of what we actually provide our students when you start talking about staff reductions.”
Of the state aid the district received for next year, three percent of it was an increase in foundation aid, which can be used for any purpose the district wants.
“The rest is allocated to specific items in the budget,” Squairs said.
The administration will go back and review the budget draft seeking further reductions in supplies, travel, etc. before considering staff reductions.
“I know things like stipends are small. But, they add up,” Allen said. “We’ve got to find money somewhere.”
Squairs estimated the levy could go up $53 million and the district could stay within the tax cap boundaries. Currently, it is $51 million.
“That is with the nuclear plants on the tax rolls,” Halsey said.
“Correct. It all changes, the whole formula changes if they come off the tax rolls,” Squairs said.
The board will reconvene April 16 at 9 a.m. in the boardroom at the Education Center to continue budget deliberations.