Forum informs residents, survey results addressed
Niskayuna Central School District is considered one of the more wealthy districts locally, but district officials aren’t glossing over budget concerns in the face of a difficult economy and possible tax cap.
`If the tax cap were to come into place, this district would face some fairly substantial reductions in services and reduction in budget,` said Superintendent of Schools Kevin Baughman at a Monday, Jan. 24, budget forum. `If a district wanted to override the tax cap they would need more than the 50 percent majority [as voted on by taxpayers].`
The real budget outlook for Niskayuna schools, along with all state public school districts, will become clearer once Gov. Andrew Cuomo releases his proposed budget, but Niskayuna school officials are already bracing for the worst and tackling the problem of paying mandated costs while maintaining quality education. If the governor imposes a 2 percent tax cap, the district would only be able to cover the increases in pension costs and health care, said Baughman.
In the coming months, the Board of Education will put together a budget for district taxpayers to vote on, and Baughman said it is not going to be an easy task.
`The Board of Education has some real challenges to face,` said Baughman. `We are facing rising pensions and benefits costs. The school district doesn’t have control over pension rates or who is in which pension.`
The district’s portion of a teacher’s pension contribution is rising from 8.6 percent of their payroll to 11.5 percent. Baughman said the increase might not seem significant, but the roughly 3 percent increase will equal around $825,000 for the district. For employee pension contributions other than teachers, the district is looking at an increase from 11.6 percent to 16.4 percent. Health insurance is expected to go up 4.5 percent, which equals around $400,000.
`Why is that jumping? We don’t really know. We assume it is based on the fact that the stock market is just starting to recover, but [the state] uses a five-year average to build back the fund to its full 100 percent,` said Baughman.
Baughman said there needs to be a balance between the needs of the community, he said, and what residents can and will be willing to pay.
The district’s recently completed budget survey, which was completed by 736 people.
`The less costly items were rated less highly and, unfortunately, the items that are very expensive, like staffing, were rated quite highly,` said Baughman. `All items were [rated] at least somewhat important. There wasn’t any item that wasn’t rated at least somewhat important. Again, it depends on whom you ask. Everything we have on the budget is at least valued by some groups or all groups.`
While no context was provided regarding the cost, maintaining smaller elementary school class sizes was highly valued across all demographic groups. There was also strong support by all demographic groups for a full-time nurse and principal in each building and daily cleaning of buildings by custodial staff.
There were a few items holding a rating average below a 2.5 value, with 5 being essential and 1 being less important, where all groups seemed to be in agreement.
The two lowest rated items in the survey, both holding an average rating of 2.41, were district publications and assistant principals at the high school, of which there are currently three. Maintaining elementary foreign language programs from first to third grade held an average rating value of 2.47.
During the question-and-answer portion of the forum, residents shared some of their concerns on how to save money in the district.
Ken Johnson, 20-year resident, asked if the board has looked at outsourcing transportation, and Assistant Superintendent for Business Matthew Bourgeois said the district has looked into the solution, but so far maintaining in-house control has seemed the better option. Bourgeois said the district does constantly review the bus runs and efficiency.
Another resident, Jim Hunter, said the control unions have over schools is `disgraceful,` and more needs to be done to change the unions’ grasp on taxpayers.
Baughman said he supported changing the Triborough Amendment of the state’s Taylor Law, which has step increases remain in place even after contracts expire. This allows union members in the district to have around a 2 percent raise before negotiations even begin, since the raise will be carried forward even if negotiations are unsuccessful.
The next budget workshop is scheduled for March 1 during the Board of Education’s regular meeting at the District Office Board Room. For information regarding the budget, including meeting schedules and the 53 frequently asked questions from the budget survey, visit www.niskyschools.org.“