Tax hike, layoffs part of school budget draft

Published Mar 2, 2018 at 4:10pm

Proposals for a 3.96 percent local property tax levy increase, seven elementary teacher layoffs plus 18 various position cuts through attrition, and elimination of summer school for grades 7-12 are part of the Rome school district’s initial 2018-19 budget draft.

The proposed $118.37 million budget, presented by district Superintendent Peter C. Blake to the Board of Education Thursday night, will be reviewed by the board and could be adjusted based on such factors as staff retirements and final state financial aid totals. It is up from the current 2017-18 budget of $115.3 million.

The 2018-19 spending plan is “our first run....What we believe...a good school budget for next year,” Blake told the board. A second version of the budget proposal will be presented “four weeks from now...with any changes that may occur.” The 2018-19 budget, which would take effect July 1, is to be approved by the board in April and also would be subject to district voters’ approval in the May 15 election.

What Blake presented is “where we stand on March 1” and is “still preliminary,” board
President Paul Fitzpatrick said today. Board Vice President Paul Hagerty noted today that the board will “now get into more of the specifics” including the details behind various steps proposed.

The proposed local tax levy increase and cuts in some categories would be geared to help balance the preliminary budget, according to Blake’s presentation. In addition, $2 million of the district’s available fund balance/savings would be used to help close a gap between expenditures and the revenues to cover them.

Among potential steps outlined by Blake:

• The proposed 3.96 percent local property tax levy increase would be the first since the 2014-15 school district budget, and would be within the district’s allowable 4.19 percent increase based on state tax-cap formulas.

Since 2013-14, the district has not collected about $1.5 million overall in property tax revenues that would have been allowable within state tax-caps, Blake said. Such money is “gone forever” in terms of being available for budgets, he noted.

For a home in the city of Rome with an assessed value of $100,000, the proposed 2018-19 tax increase after a basic STAR reduction would add $105 to the tax bill.

• The overall 25 positions to be eliminated would be “across the board” in such categories as teachers, teacher assistants, custodial and maintenance, and administration, said Blake. They would be “almost all through attrition except for seven elementary positions” if the district does “not get more retirements” affecting grades K-6, he told the board.

Notifications of layoffs for 2018-19 would need to be sent to teachers by April 15 based on contractual requirements, said Blake. Eliminating 25 positions overall would save about $2.5 million including pay and benefits, Blake said. He said after the meeting that “the possibility of seven layoffs really bothers me,” expressing hope that the district could find a way to avoid them in the final budget.

• Summer school would be cut for grades 7-12, but elementary and special education summer school programs would be “still in the budget,” Blake said. Summer school for the upper grade levels is “a privilege” that the district cannot “offer right now,” he commented.

Some students have annually used summer school for additional courses needed to meet requirements for high-school graduation; for example, Rome Free Academy’s summer graduation ceremonies included 13 students who earned diplomas in August 2017, and 17 in August 2016.

The district during 2018-19 will have an online credit recovery program at RFA, Blake observed. It will help “offset the loss of summer school” to some extent, he added. The district would “like to encourage people to not require summer school” for graduating, said Fitzpatrick.

The secondary-grade summer school program includes affiliations with BOCES. Another BOCES-related expense reduction proposed by Blake would decrease the students participating in the BOCES alternative education program for secondary grade levels; it would be lowered from 63 students to 40 for grades 9-12, and from 30-plus students to 20 for middle school. The district is taking steps to try to keep more of these students in traditional school settings, Blake said.

The summer school cuts and the reduction in secondary alternative education would save the district about $800,000, Blake said.

• There would be no academic program cuts, and the programs would be maintained, Blake said. In addition, the proposed budget "maintains support for students," according to his presentation; there would be "no reduction in programs that directly support social, emotional and mental health" of students, Blake said.

• In listing budget "pros" and "cons," Blake's presentation said other "pros" would include reconfigurations of leadership positions for the personnel and buildings and grounds departments after retirements, at some financial savings; and adjustments to benefit school supplies for grades K-6 plus overall technology support.

• The spending category proposals include $55.05 million for instruction, up 2.74 percent; administration, $8.66 million, up 1.57 percent; central services, $6.39 million, down 8.7 percent; transportation, $6.49 million, down 2.86 percent; debt service, $11.33 million, up 5.69 percent; benefits, $30.43 million, up 5.69 percent.

• Among categories to help cover expenditures for 2018-19 are about $75 million in state financial aid; $33.9 million from the local property tax levy; $2 million in fund balance; plus some funding from various other areas such as PILOT (payments in lieu of taxes) agreements and debt-service adjustments.