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New Scotland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, January 29, 2009

VCSD plans for the worst in budget draft
Proposes slashing $830K

By Jo E. Prout

VOORHEESVILLE — The school board and its administration said Monday that proposed cuts to the budget could cause never-before-seen “years of pain” for both taxpayers and district employees whose layoffs are imminent.

“These are hard times, and I know we have to face this,” said interim Superintendent Raymond Colucciello at the public budget meeting Monday night. “I haven’t seen this kind of a budget in my career.”

The proposed 2009-10 school budget is $833,761 less than the budget this year and would bring an estimated tax-rate hike of 3.5 percent. Voorheesville currently has a $21.7 million budget, about 28 percent of which is covered by state aid. In December, Governor David Paterson proposed reducing school aid statewide by $698 million.

On Monday, Assistant Superintendent for Business Sarita Winchell said that, if the district loses an estimated $875,000 in state aid, the taxes in Voorheesville could rise 3.5 percent.

The district has $460,000 in its appropriated fund balance to offset the tax rate and keep taxes down, she said.

Voorheesville could have a different budget, depending on the state budget and any changes made in it by the legislature, federal aid, local faculty retirements, and items like health insurance costs, Colucciello said.

For example, he said, annual staff reviews will not be done before March, just before the school board adopts the budget proposal, and the reviews could affect the final number. The public has its say in May.

“New York State has been in trouble, the school’s been in trouble,” Winchell said. “I’ve never had everything be in trouble at one time.”

“It may not get better,” Colucciello said. “We have to do what we have to do.”

“Let’s be clear — there is no way this is final,” school board President David Gibson told the standing-room-only crowd of worried parents and employees.

“We knew this was going to be hard times. This is in the infant stages of development,” Colucciello said. “We planned for the worst, and that’s what you see this evening.”

School cuts

A large portion of the $830,000 proposed budget reductions comes from the middle and high schools, with $523,000 cut. Between the two schools, the equivalent of 6.8 full-time teachers could be cut from the budget, as could one teaching assistant and several hours of aid time. (See related story.)

The special-education program, run from the high school, could see a further reduction of $94,000, with the reduction of one full-time teacher and one teaching assistant.

The elementary-school program could be reduced by $100,000, with the elimination of some classroom sections, one full-time teacher, and the reduction of aid or teaching assistant time.

Transportation costs may be cut by $26,000; equipment, supplies, and maintenance together could lose $50,000; and a reduction in sabbatical costs, with no one on sabbatical, could save $28,000 in the budget.

Athletics may eliminate two coaching positions, a basketball tournament, and several soccer and basketball games. The district could save $2,500 by not purchasing new sports equipment and uniforms, for a total athletics reduction of $10,000. If the numbers of games per season are reduced by a statewide oversight organization, there could be additional savings. (See related story.)

“Balancing act”

Gibson said that many in the community are having financial difficulty with the current economy, and that the district does not want to cause even more local residents employed by the district to lose wages.

“This is a balancing act,” Gibson said.

He suggested that the staff consider further cuts in transportation costs, including the creation of safe bus stops. Currently, students are picked up and dropped at their homes.

“Continue to push that. I know it’s hard,” he said.

The United Employees of Voorheesville union representative said that some workers are already worried about going from seven-hour workdays to three-hour days, because of the effects reduced hours would have on health insurance coverage.

She said that many of the staff are local residents and, with reduced hours, would also have to pay the proposed tax rate hike.

“I want the board to consider what you’re doing to these people,” the union representative said. “I have a very sad group of people.”

She said that the proposal to use district mechanics as substitute bus drivers to cut costs did not appeal to employees.

“They don’t feel safe with 60 kids behind them,” she said.

The union representative questioned the district’s cost of maintenance of the swimming pool at the high school.

One resident asked if the Guilderland school district, which shares a swim program with Voorheesville, helps with the costs of the pool.

“Pools are usually a luxury. I don’t know if we can afford a luxury anymore,” she said.

Resident Mike Snyder questioned the use of the fund balance in the district’s budget.

“I’d like to keep 10 percent of my taxes,” he said.

Winchell said that the fund balance is used to reduce taxes for the next year.

“It’s gone,” she said.

Snyder asked if the school could accept funds raised by outside groups in the district, and he suggested a $300,000 donation.

“If the community provides $300,000, can the district accept it?” Gibson asked Winchell.

“Absolutely. We accept money,” Winchell said.

“Why do we have a fund balance?” Gibson asked, answering himself,  “We are not allowed by state law to run negative.”

He said that unknown swings in district costs could occur, such as the unbudgeted cost for a student receiving special-education services, which can cost between $30,000 and $95,000 per student, and the fund balance would pay for that.

Stable tax rate

Board Vice President C. James Coffin said that the board’s objective is to have enough cash available to deal with cyclical events and unknown factors, and to keep the current educational programs going and, possibly, growing.

In the past, Coffin said, the tax rate had changed drastically from year to year.

“You want to see unhappy people —” he said. “A stable tax rate means a lot to a lot of people.”

Coffin said that the proposed tax rate was “within reason.” For the 2009-10 budget, the rate increase Winchell presented is 3.5 percent. For the following two years, the rate increase is projected at 4 percent. The estimates assume reduced state aid for the next three years; a reduced fund balance from $460,000 this year down to $250,000 by 2010-11, and for the following year; and a transfer of debt reduction from $180,000 this year to $18,000 by 2011-12.

The three-year projections show the tax levy increasing by $1.5 million. Even with the proposed budget cuts, including savings on reduced services, required payroll and health insurance increases will affect the overall budget, projected at $22.1 million by 2011-12, up from the current budget of $21.7 million.

“It’s critical to look more than one year out,” Coffin said. District residents could face “one or two years of real pain,” he said.

“We’re hoping that we can maintain a relatively stable tax rate through this crisis…while others are suffering in so many ways,” Coffin said. There is no way to escape the crisis, he said.

“A real effort has been made to preserve program,” Coffin said. “Some people are going to be hurt. There’s no question about this.”

About reduced staff in the schools, he said, “We’re all going to have to work a little harder.”

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