A potential 3.96 percent increase in the local property tax levy, and reductions of 81 staff positions through layoffs and attrition, are in a proposed 2019-20 Rome school district budget as presented by district Superintendent Peter C. Blake.
Among other proposed cuts in the spending plan are all modified sports involving 28 teams, pre-kindergarten for 3-year-olds, Forever Growing pre-school special education program, and transportation for the pre-K program which would continue serving 4-year-olds.
Even with the potential reductions, the proposed $118.95 million budget would still face a $4.5 million gap between revenues and expenditures that could be covered by using more of the district’s fund balance/savings, beyond $2.4 million already earmarked. But Blake said that would leave only about $587,000 of fund balance/savings, which he would not recommend.
As possible alternatives, the district will seek additional state financial assistance in the Foundation Aid category that Blake said is significantly underfunded for Rome based on formulas for what should be provided. The district also will look into other potential internal reductions in several categories, and among them would be to possibly review and consider wage freezes.
The proposed budget, for the next school year beginning July 1, was presented by Blake at the Board of Education meeting Thursday night. It will be discussed further at the next board meeting on March 28, and ultimately is to be decided upon by district voters in a May 21 election.
Blake cited “a lot of work left to be done yet,” including “what we can do to...fix the issues moving forward.”
The proposal is up by slightly over $1 million, or less than 1 percent, compared to the current 2018-19 budget which is $117.9 million. That would include savings of about $7.1 million through the various reductions of positions and programs.
The proposed 3.96 property tax levy increase, which would increase the overall levy by about $1.3 million to a total of $35.12 million, is slightly below the 4.06 percent increase that would be allowable under state tax-cap formulas. Among projected tax rates per $1,000 of assessed valuation within the district’s five municipalities, with rates widely varying due to each municipality assessing property at different equalization rates:
Rome, $32.43, up by $1.54 per $1,000.
Lee, $697.98, up by $7.23 per $1,000.
Western, $42.64, up by $0.45 per $1,000.
Annsville, $41.13, up by $0.07 per $1,000.
Verona, $32.27, up by $0.33 per $1,000.
For a home in Rome assessed at $100,000, the projected tax bill after a basic STAR program reduction would increase by $140.
Staff and program reductions
For the proposed 81 staff reductions, which would account for about $4.6 million of the $7.1 million in overall savings through various cuts, Blake told the board they would involve all bargaining units including “attrition and true layoffs.” But he otherwise would not specify the positions or job categories. He said he was hopeful the district can “find a way to improve” the overall financial situation, rather than tell 81 people but then “turn around in three weeks” and tell many of them “you’re OK.”
The district has had contractual requirements calling for notifications of layoffs to be sent to teachers by April 15. The district’s total employment is slightly over 1,000, including teachers, administrators, and various other positions such as teacher assistants, secretaries, buildings and grounds, and security.
Among other proposed reductions and estimated savings:
Pre-K for 3-year-olds, and the Forever Growing Program — $1.18 million. Blake said all but one of the students in Forever Growing “are aging out” of the program.
Hillside Work-Scholarship Program, which seeks to improve graduation rates for certain at-risk Rome Free Academy students — $270,000.
Pre-K transportation — $250,000.
All modified sports — $249,312.
Extra duty/overtime — $228,000. Blake said he feels a reduction can be achieved through better time management, and working together with staff.
Seeking legislators’ help
Blake said he has had “several conversations” with state Sen. Joseph A. Griffo, R-47, Rome, adding “we’re in agreement the numbers are wrong” regarding state financial aid. He said Griffo is seeking to set meetings for district representatives with the head of the Senate education committee and the Senate’s Democratic majority leader.
A state budget for the 2019-20 fiscal year is due to be approved by state legislators by April 1.
Foundation Aid, currently proposed at $49.09 million for the Rome district in 2019-20, is the largest category within an overall $75.69 million in state aid. But Blake noted the district should be slated to receive $61.8 million in Foundation Aid for 2019-20, according to formulas that he said are not being followed.
Other savings to explore
Regarding possible consideration of a wage freeze, Blake said he has spoken to union leaders but has “not formally asked” if employees would accept it. He said he believes all employees have the right to fair wages and increases.
He also has “spoken to all bargaining units” about a possible review of benefit program changes that “could save a lot of money,” such as overall plan revisions and changes in employees’ contribution rates.
Wages are due to increase by about 3-to-3.25 percent for 2019-20, while the district’s health benefit expenses are to go up about 6.5 percent, said Blake.
He said the district also could investigate options for further reductions such as zero funding for supplies and equipment, and reduced expenditures in other non-mandated programs plus the school resource officer/school safety officer contract along with clubs and after-school activities.
School board members’ reaction
Jonathon Matwijec-Walda asked about “weighing the impact” for each of the proposed cuts, and a listing “in order of importance and impact.”
Blake replied, “as a group, we need to ask these questions.” For the board, “you do have final say in what I propose,” he added.
The board will be reviewing the spending plan, and is scheduled to adopted a proposed 2019-20 budget by April 23 which would then be presented to district voters in May.
Joseph Mellace asked about overall attrition-related savings through not filling vacated positions such as through retirements.
Blake said the district has “talked internally” about possibly offering a retirement incentive, which could generate further departures of longer-term and higher-paid staff including some whose positions could be filled by less expensive replacements. But “we’re not quite there yet.”
Lawrence Posselt asked about projected expenditure increases of about $1.3 million for central services and $1.1 million for transportation. Blake said the central services hike is mostly due to some unexpected increases relating to a Strough Middle School renovation project, while among factors in the transportation category are contractual increases involving the Birnie Bus company.