Warrensburg Superintendent of Schools John Goralski presents the draft 2014-15 school district budget at a public forum held Feb. 24 at the high school. He requested that local citizens lobby legislators for increased state aid and reduced mandates that impose a burden on local taxpayers.
As they unveiled their draft 2014-15 budget on Monday Feb. 24, local public school officials urged local citizens to lobby legislators for more state aid and fewer mandates.
Warrensburg Central School District’s preliminary $19.7 million budget, which represents a $2.98 percent tax levy increase, allocates hundreds of thousands of dollars more for health care and staff pension costs — but maintains programs and avoids faculty and staff layoffs.
“This budget just keeps in place what we have, while meeting contractual obligations,” Warrensburg Superintendent of School John Goralski said.
The spending plan, which calls for $570,660 more in expenditures than the present year, allocates $800,000 in fund balance to meet projected expenses — so the tax levy will comply with the state’s so-called 2 percent tax cap.
Goralski and WCS business manager Cynthia Turcotte presented the budget to a sparse audience of about a dozen local citizens attending a forum. The event was intended to both obtain public input on the school district’s financial issues and to identify priorities for academic and extracurricular programs.
Several citizens asked questions about state aid as well as the effect on taxes of the local Price Chopper plaza opening later this year. Those speaking sounded sympathetic to the school administrators financial concerns.
Turcotte noted that according to estimates, total state aid was increasing from $9.7 million in 2013-14 to $10.1 million for 2014-15, or a $414,513 increase. She said that after subtracting building renovations aid, the additional aid was actually only about $140,000 — not anywhere enough to offset increases in employee health care costs and pension plan contributions, as well as other escalating costs.
Goralski summarized the administrators’ plight.
“The bad news is expenses outpace revenues,” he said, noting that about $243,000 more would have to be raised in 2014-15 through the local tax levy. “The state keeps making new program requirements without allocating the money for us to meet their mandates.”
School leaders: WCS needs more state aid
The district’s increases in health insurance costs, pension contributions, and salaries — according to union contracts — total $417,000, Goralski and Turcotte said.
The two administrators asked the public to contact Gov. Cuomo and state legislators, and ask them to restore the state’s “Gap Elimination Adjustment,” a state-aid reduction imposed mid-year in 2010 by Gov. David Paterson in an attempt to narrow a looming $10 billion state budget shortfall. This revocation of state aid has cost Warrensburg Central Schools about $1 million per year since then, Turcotte said.
Goralski and Turcotte also asked citizens to ask state legislators to reform the criteria of state aid distribution to make it more equitable to poorer districts like Warrensburg. They also asked citizens to campaign for reduction of unfunded state mandates, for reform of the current pension system and for relief from health benefit expenses they called “unsustainable.”
Goralski and Turcotte urged the audience to lobby for more state aid so the district could restore remedial programs, summer school, special education offerings, elective courses, and advanced programs that once flourished in Warrensburg, but were eliminated during the last decade due to the state’s cutbacks in state aid and the financial stresses facing the district and its taxpayers.
Goralski also said that Gov. Cuomo was proposing to spend money on special projects like providing computer tablets and electronic “whiteboards” for schools and funding full-day pre-kindergarten, while not addressing crucial financial needs for core academic programs.
People in the audience expressed agreement with the administrators’ positions. A stack of sample letters expressing these concerns, addressed to state officials, were provided — to be filled out by local citizens. Audience members signed a number of the letters, leaving them with Goralski to deliver to state leaders.
Turcotte noted that Warrensburg teachers’ salaries for the 2014-15 year will be increasing 1.25 percent, plus “step” increases of an average of 2.08 percent, according to union contract. Health insurance premiums are to increase by 6 percent, costing the district $235,000 more this next year.
Teachers’ Retirement System contributions are to be 17.53 percent of employees’ salaries this next year, Turcotte said. Not that many years ago, that rate was a mere 1 percent, she added.
The budget calls for leasing three 66-passenger buses, new ones that will replace three aging vehicles, she said.
This tentative local school budget is drafted on the lowest expected level of state aid, which has not yet been finalized by state officials. Often, aid is increased incrementally in spring, providing some fiscal relief, Turcotte said.
New Price Chopper to boost tax base
Goralski said that the $13 million Price Chopper Plaza now under development in Lake George — but within the Warrensburg School District — will provide minimal tax relief this year, as it will only be assessed on the value of the completed construction. In upcoming years, the development won’t be taxed at its full value, because a 10-year Payment In Lieu of Taxes was negotiated in 2013 with the Warren-Washington Counties Industrial Development Agency. This agreement calls for a 75 percent exemption on any improvements made to the property for the first four years, a 50 percent exemption for the next three years and a 25 percent exemption for the final three years.
The tax relief was granted in consideration that the supermarket and other stores in the plaza will be creating 80 new permanent jobs. The development also received sales and mortgage tax breaks.
WCS’ academic achievements recognized
Goralski praised the school board and former superintendent of Schools Tim Lawson for their work in maintaining programs and academic excellence during recent years while slashing expenses to keep taxes relatively level.
“Tim Lawson and the school board have done an amazing job,” he said.
Goralski observed that Warrensburg Central was recently ranked No. 6 among the 85 schools in the Capital Region for academic performance, and its achievement was ranked at No. 27 among 429 upstate schools. These high rankings were achieved while the district was the 9th lowest among 90 school districts in spending increases, he said.
“These are good numbers, but we will always be working toward better numbers,” he said.