Following a lengthy debate among Board of Education members over whether expenses could be better controlled, the board has adopted a proposed 2019-20 Rome school district budget of $116.69 million.
The proposed spending plan, adopted in an 8-0 board vote Tuesday night, will be subject to final approval by school district voters in a May 21 election.
Down slightly from the current $117.9 million budget for 2018-19, the proposed budget calls for a 4.06 percent increase in the local property tax levy, the maximum allowed for the district based on state tax-cap formulas. It also includes some cutbacks to help balance the budget and offset state financial aid shortfalls that have been cited by district officials; among the changes are eliminating about 75 positions through attrition and layoffs; and cutting some programs including pre-K special education.
The layoffs could involve about 35 teachers, district Superintendent Peter C. Blake said after the meeting, but he predicted that number would change pending possible upcoming retirements or departures.
Blake’s budget presentation during the meeting was followed by board clerk Paul Hagerty expressing concern about budget expenses, prompting disagreements with him by some other board members.
Hagerty said “expenses over time” have “increased pretty dramatically...especially the last four years.” Referring to the district’s use of its fund balance/savings to help balance recent budgets, he said “our expenses have been going up...fund balance has been going down.” Noting that state financial aid increases are “not covering increases in expenditures,” he said it is “not a good situation.” The 2019-20 budget proposes using about $2.5 million of the district’s fund balance/savings, which would leave about $4.8 million unused.
The school district budget was $105.2 million in 2013-14, and rose by about $1.5 million-$3 million each year through the 2018-19 budget prior to the spending reduction proposed for 2019-20. The 2011-12 budget was $98.7 million, and the 2012-13 budget was $101.2 million.
However, board member John Leonard asked “what expenses would you cut” at this point. Hagerty said he had “no magic answers,” but commented “we have to reduce the rate of increased expenditures.”
Leonard, though, said “any business...every year” has increased expenses. He pointed out that school district benefit expenses for employees alone were up $2.5 million, and also referred to such categories as contractual pay raises and costs for utilities.
Leonard asked Hagerty to “spit it out” and say what expenses he would seek to cut.
Board President Paul Fitzpatrick observed that if the district had “just rolled everything over into next year” and kept all current programs and staffing for the new 2019-20 budget, it would have been at $125 million. But Hagerty asked “didn’t that surprise you?”
Fitzpatrick, however, said it is “not because we’re spending willy-nilly.” He remarked “things are more expensive,” adding “if we want to balance the budget” some “really painful cuts” are needed.
Later in the discussion, board member Joseph Mellace referred to Blake’s point that 96 percent of the budget involves fixed costs. He said the remaining 4 percent could be eliminated and it still would not balance the budget. He asked “how do you propose we get to where we need to be” short of such steps as cutting 40-100 teachers every year.
Hagerty, later referring to what the district spends and what it can afford, said of the current 5-year contract with the Rome Teachers Association (RTA) union that "as it turns out" the district can "not afford that." He noted its approximately 3.5 percent annual pay raises, and said it is part of the district's accelerated costs. The district has about 500 teachers.
The district can "not go back and re-do" the contract, said Hagerty, noting the difficulty of asking for contract concessions. Blake said after the meeting that concessions were sought from all of the district's bargaining units, but there are no approved concessions.
Regarding the RTA contract, approved by the board in March 2017 and retroactive to July 2016, board member Lawrence Posselt noted the union agreed to changes in the "step" raise portion that will lead to substantial future savings. The district "took a hit up front," he said, but got provisions for newer employees going forward. If the district did "not re-do" that portion, it would be in worse financial shape, he added. For "step" raises based on longevity and related factors, the contract included a separate pay schedule for newly hired teachers that would pay them less at the upper end of the schedule compared to teachers already with the district prior to the contract. The total pay increases in the contract also included separately negotiated annual raises besides the "step" payments.
Earlier in the discussion, board Vice President Stephen Hampe observed the Rome district relies "so much on state aid," adding some other districts are "getting much more" than entitled to. He remarked "we do need to be fiscally responsible," but the district's many beneficial programs "cost money to have." He said "when you have things the community desires...but you don't have the funding stream...you take risks."
Preceding the board's discussion, it heard from three speakers:
• Pre-K special education teacher Diane O'Rourke said if that category is reduced or eliminated, the lack of that high-quality learning environment at an early age would probably cause greater problems later. She asked whether some of the program could be reinstated if the district does get some additional state financial aid.
Blake, whose presentation mentioned there are still opportunities for some additional aid, said there might be potential for a reinstatement of some sort although it is uncertain.
• RTA President Robert Wood said "the problem lies in Albany" regarding how state aid is funded. The union will "continue to address this problem" and "fight for what's right for the community."
• In a topic separate from the 2019-20 budget, parent Jessie Bouton of Tuscan Way in Lee objected to the recent reassignment of five teacher assistants (TAs) from Stokes Elementary School to other district schools. She asked about the process involved, and questioned why the change was made with "two months to go" in the current school year.
Blake said it involved a TA shortage at some other schools coupled with mandated needs for special education students. The situation was worsening, and "we made the decision we had to change it," he explained.