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Sunday, 29 November -0001 19:03

Classroom Cutbacks: 2012 School Budget Votes Reviewed

SARATOGA COUNTY – Saratoga County school districts may have dodged a bullet this year after voters approved a majority of the proposed budgets Tuesday, May 15, but drastic cuts in staffing and programing, paired with dwindling state aid and limited revenue will continue to compound district woes in the years ahead.

 

Only Stillwater Central School District was unable to get the necessary votes to pass its 2012-2013 budget on Tuesday. Though a majority of voters approved the vote (480 – 373), the budget failed to garner the 60 percent supermajority needed to pass a budget whose tax levy of 3.08 percent was higher than the tax cap limit. Because of a payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) agreement with GlobalFoundries earlier this year, a complicated formula that determines the tax levy percentage actually dropped Stillwater's rate by nearly 4.5 percent compared to the previous year. While Stillwater's proposed budget still cut total spending by .31 percent, without a supermajority the budget was dead in the water.

"This has been a challenging budget year for districts across the state, and I think we're going to see that budget challenges are here to stay for the foreseeable future," said Dr. Stanley Maziejka, the superintendent of schools for Stillwater. "Even as we strive to address the concerns of taxpayers during this difficult economic period, our board of education remains committed to our mission to offer a quality education for our students."

The Stillwater Board of Education will now reconvene Tuesday, May 22 to discuss either putting the same budget up for another vote, amending the budget before it's brought back to the voters or put up a contingency budget that is stripped down to the bare minimum.

The remaining local districts were fortunate enough to pass their budgets by fairly wide margins on Tuesday. Saratoga Springs voters approved the budget by a 2,203 – 601 margin; Ballston Spa (which was also affected by the PILOT agreement with GlobalFoundries) received a needed supermajority to pass their budget by 1,737 – 759; Schuylerville passed their budget by 725 – 292; Burnt Hills-Ballston Spa's budget passed by 1566 – 654; and South Glens Falls voters approved their district's budget by a 1143-424 margin.

While these districts were able to gain approval for their 2012-2013 budgets, a majority of the districts did so only by cutting numerous staffing positions, programs and services. The cuts for some were deeper than others this year, and are likely only the beginning as financial troubles continue to mount year after year.

In Schuylerville, whose budget decreased for the second year in a row, the budget was made to work within the state tax levy limit by cutting nine teaching positions; eliminating an assistant principal position at an elementary school; cutting funding for seven other non-teaching positions and several other positions due to a loss in federal aid; cutting funding for supplies and summer school; and eliminating the modified cross-country team and cutting winter junior varsity cheerleading. Other funding cuts, including substitute teacher compensation, cutting four extra-curricular clubs, a two-year salary freeze for administrators and increased health insurance contributions from staff were also needed to make the numbers work.

Other districts, including Saratoga Springs, were forced to make deep cuts in staffing – a trend Saratoga has witnessed over the last several budget cycles starting in 2009-2010. This year, Saratoga cut a total of 18 positions – including 12 teachers and six support staff members.

"Over the last several years, we've reduced our staff by about 46.5 people," said Kurt Jaeger, the assistant superintendent for business for the Saratoga Springs district.

Ballston Spa has seen dramatic cuts in staffing since 2009-2010, having lost over 50 full-time positions in total.

To balance their budget, Saratoga Springs drew heavily from their reserve fund, as well as budgeting approximately $5.3 million from the undesignated fund balance. If the district continues to pull from their remaining reserve funds at the same rate, Jaeger predicted that in four years' time, the remaining balance left would be, "not an awful lot."

"Obviously we're very cautious and right now our relative position is stable," said Dr. Janice White, superintendent of schools for Saratoga Springs. "But certainly it is not sustainable in five, 10 years."

To make the numbers work, Saratoga, like many other districts, are getting more and more creative when it comes to finding savings – refinancing bonds, consolidating bus routes, looking for savings in energy and gas costs – doing anything they can before they start cutting into programing that affects students.

"Education is an investment," said White, "and people want to know that they're getting a return on their investment."

But with fixed costs mandated by the state continuing to rise, state aid falling year after year and the tax cap placing a limit on revenue, schools are being asked to do more while said investments continue to decrease. Creative solutions can go a long way to closing the budget deficits, but compounding challenges place reasonable limits on how long districts can operate before something has to give.

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