WARRENSBURG - Several area schools are facing deep budget gaps for 2011-12 - as much as $1.26 million - if the educational state aid allocations in Gov. Andrew Cuomo's proposed budget are adopted.
Such cuts put substantial pressure on local school districts, area school officials said this week, in light of spiraling costs for fuel, plus staff and faculty pay, including pensions and health care.
The figures released in February by the governor's office detail the budget cuts: $1.26 million less for Warrensburg than in the 2010-11 year, $537,870 less for North Warren, $376,504 less for Lake George Central, and a $98,479 cut for Bolton Central.
The cuts were apparently determined in proportion to the State Aid the school districts now receive.
Warrensburg facing steepest decrease in aid
For Warrensburg School District residents, such a $1.26 million shortfall in State Aid -- plus expected increases of about $420,000 in additional staff pension and health care costs -- would prompt an 18 percent hike in 2011-12 property tax bills, according to figures based on prior budgets.
In recent years, the Warrensburg Central School Board has chosen to cut expenditures rather than to hike taxes.
Warrensburg Central Superintendent Tim Lawson said this week the school board would be tackling this budget gap Monday March 7 at their evening meeting.
"Obviously there's a shortfall in financial aid coming from the state, and this translates into the likelihood of reductions in personnel and programs," he said. "But the board can certainly consider raising the tax levy to make up the difference."
He said public input would be welcome.
"The board will have make some tough decisions soon," he added.
The bulk of the districts' expenses are faculty and staff pay and benefits. The Warrensburg faculty's present work contract expires June 30, and the school board is now in negotiations with the teachers' union over a new contract.
The present contract calls for paying teachers an annual "step" longevity increase of a median average of 1.7 percent up through year 26 of employment. On top of this amount is an additional raise that boosts the total above 3 percent annually, Lawson said. The teachers contribute to their health care costs, shouldering 10 percent of the premiums. Their pensions, however, are fully funded by the state.
For more than two years now, the Warrensburg school board has struggled with budget reduction, and they've made cuts to staff and programs, while teachers' salaries have increased.
According to figures in an independent report published in 2010, median teacher pay in Warrensburg is within the top quarter of 85 schools in the Capital Region, and ranks third among all schools in Warren County. At $56,356 plus benefits, their average pay is the highest in the county except for Glens Falls and Johnsburg schools, according to data collected by the Albany Business Review.
Meanwhile, the number of teachers at Warrensburg has decreased.
Several teachers were given cash bonuses to retire early, and their positions were not filled. One teacher was terminated last year due to budget cuts, and the instructor's course load was redistributed.
Among the programs cut have been drivers' education and various programs for the educationally gifted.
Last year, the district was on the verge of cutting volleyball, winter cheerleading and boys soccer, but after outcry from the public, the school board decided to keep the cheerleading and two sports, while investigate the possibility of merging soccer and volleyball offerings with Bolton Central. That option was shelved at the February Bolton School Board meeting.
Bolton Central, meanwhile, is facing a much smaller budget gap, because the school district relies less on State Aid due to its resort and lakefront properties.
Superintendent of Schools Ray Ciccarelli noted that school officials had a head start on budget trimming, because beginning in 2008 they had prepared a long-term plan which included pruning expenses in light of declining enrollment.
According to plan, the ongoing process of reducing teaching positions -- which is primarily based on attrition -- is expected to continue this year. In addition to attrition, school officials are eyeing the elimination of one position in a special subject area -- likely to save about $50,000 -- and the teacher's responsibilities will likely be reassigned to others.
"We are trying hard not to use our reserves to make up the shortfall," Ciccarelli said.
North Warren Business Manager Mary Lou Carstensen said this week her district's school board would be meeting in a budget workshop March 16 to hear about suggested cuts from leaders of various departments in the school system.
"At this point, we have to assume we will be cut $587,000," she said. "If the State Aid cuts aren't reduced in the Governor's budget, area districts will be facing huge budget gaps."
Lake George is facing a far smaller cut than North Warren, due to Lake George's revenue from commercial and resort properties and pricey lakefront developments.
Although Lake George's proposed cut in State Aid is small in proportion to the district's overall budget, Superintendent of Schools Patrick Dee said that the financial squeeze still posed a substantial challenge.
Initial budget hearings were scheduled to start this week, he said.
"It's no longer the status quo, and clearly we need to look at all aspects of the school budget," Dee said. "We need to be fiscally responsible to our taxpayers."