Elizabethtown-Lewis Central School
ELIZABETHTOWN — Renting out classrooms to private businesses? Sharing superintendents? It’s more likely than you think, said Elizabethtown-Lewis Central School superintendent Scott Osborne at a public forum on Monday, March 17 to discuss the future of the district.
Like other districts in the North Country, ELCS is tightening their belts — and they’re nearing the last notch.
As the particulars of the 2014-15 school budget start to come into focus, Osborne and the board have arrived at a tentative number at what it will cost to run the school next year, about $7.7 million.
“Half of our budget is state aid and the other half comes from property taxes,” he said.
State aid is projected to make up about $3.47 million for the upcoming year and $3.5 million will come from the property tax levy.
This means a shortage of $363,363 that has to come from somewhere.
In the past, this shortfall was fleshed out by state aid, something has been slashed for the past half-decade by something called the Gap Elimination Adjustment (GEA), a device designed in 2010 to help the state eliminate a $10 billion deficit.
Every year, the state includes the GEA in the budget and pairs it with increasing mandates, said Osborne. And each year, educators lobby state representatives to end it — or at least hack it away.
Osborne said he’s “confident” he’ll know prior to the next board meeting on Tuesday, March 25 what the state, which is in the end game of finalizing their budget, decides.
“Removing additional state aid from public schools is troublesome,” he said. “If this holds true, our district will have lost $2.4 million since the GEA was introduced in 2010.
Additional stressors on districts, he said, include a rise in health insurance premiums, growing energy costs and the property tax cap, which currently sits at 1.46 percent due to a low CPI.
Districts can lean on their fund balance as a survival float, but “every piggy bank eventually goes broke,” he said.
The district’s fund balance — accumulated monies that act as a shock absorber against unexpected expenses or revenue shortfalls that could cause an operating deficit — is dropping.
A fiscal cliff, when the fund balance can no longer be relied on as a backup, is projected to hit at the beginning of the 2016-17 school year.
“We’re lucky to have a forward-looking board,” said Osborne. “But right now, we’re in a holding position.”
Osborne said bridging the gap would require a 12.9 percent increase in the tax levy, making an appeal to the public somewhat improbable, which means Team ELSC will continue to snip away at the budget.
“We have to take a careful look across all areas,” he said.
He said while 73 percent of the school’s costs are staff, the district has already eliminated close to 20 percent of instructional staff and he and the board are extremely hesitant to continue down that route.
Osbourne said he and the board will do as much as they can to trim away at “stuff”— supplies, conference trips, stipends — before they examine possible personnel changes.
The district is “right on the line” in terms of staffing and Osborne advised the board at a meeting last week to tread lightly when making decisions that would affect the livelihood of “even just one person” in the community.
Options batted around by the board at their budget workshop last week included hiring a full-time grant writer who can focus on exploring options for state aid, keeping field trips local and other creative solutions.
Other stop-gaps include renting out classroom space, slashing electives and cutting into sports programs.
Shari Morris, mother of two ELCS students, told Osborne on Monday that if came down to it, she’d rather see the district consolidate its leagues with other schools than cut their athletic programs entirely.
“My son has better grades when he’s playing sports,” she said.
Morris also worried that academic cuts, like the Spanish program that was eliminated in 2008, would put students at a disadvantage when it came to collegiate requirements.
“What we need is an alumni foundation to help alleviate this lack of revenue,” said Darlene Hooper, a retired teacher and school board hopeful. “We need to think creatively to continue to provide quality education and do so at an affordable cost.”
The second workshop is slated for Tuesday, March 25.
“It could be really long or it could be really short,” said Osborne. “It all depends on what the state legislature comes back with.”
Tuesday, April 8 is reckoning day, the third and final board workshop and when the board will hammer out their proposed spending plan.
After that, the uniform statewide budget vote and school board election falls on Tuesday, May 20.
“It’s dire and important for all stakeholders to know what we’re up against,” said Osborne.