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Hilltown Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, April 12, 2012

BKW’s super proposes $20.3 million budget, predicts fiscal stability ahead
By Zach Simeone

BERNE — At Berne-Knox-Westerlo’s budget forum, the administration presented a $20.3 million budget for next year, and updated residents on some of the proposed changes, including state aid, a technology plan, retirement costs, and up to $600,000 in grant funding that the district may be eligible for because of improved student performance.

The budget also proposes a number of staff changes. During a discussion of the proposed reduction of a French teacher’s hours, the superintendent mentioned the possibility of eventually “moving towards a one-language program” to save money.

One thing that may offset, or delay, the need for eliminating programs is BKW’s eligibility for school district performance improvement grants from the state, which could bring in as much as $200,000 a year for the next three years. The New York State Department of Education plans to award $75 million to schools over three years through this new program.

Whether or not a school district gets one of these grants is based on its score out of 115 total points in four categories. A district may score:

— Up to 50 points by increasing performance of elementary and middle-school students in English, mathematics, and science, and by increasing the percentage of students who graduate with a local or Regents diploma within their first four years of high school.

Superintendent Paul Dorward told The Enterprise this week, “BKW had a district performance index number of 28.2 points,” out of a possible 50. This figure, provided by the New York State Department of Education, “is based on data gathered from New York State Report Cards, including graduation rates and elementary- and middle-level achievement in English, math, and science exams.”

— Up to 35 points by supplying a high-quality plan for increasing student performance in “priority areas,” which include: middle-school programs; college-level or early-college programs; increased college-admission rates, measured by graduation with Regents diplomas with advanced designation; and career and technical education programs;

— Up to 10 points based on district need, calculated by a formula that factors in poverty levels, and the number of students getting free or reduced-price lunches; and

— Up to 20 points for the completion of an itemized budget form, or FS-10, signed by the superintendent.

Dorward did not have the district’s scores in the last three categories, though he said that the education department expects to begin awarding these grants in May.

BKW will hold its public budget hearing on Monday, May 7, at 7 p.m. in the middle-high school auditorium. The public will vote on the budget on Tuesday, May 15.

Three-year outlook

BKW is currently operating on a contingency budget, as it has for the past two years after a series of budget defeats. The current year’s $20.8 million budget depended on $10.7 million from property taxes, a 3.5-percent increase from the previous year, and used $8.7 from state aid.

“If our assumptions are correct, and everything tracks the way we think it’s going to track according to our budget projections,” Dorward told a crowd of about two dozen at last week’s forum, the district “should be in a fiscally stable situation for the next three years.”

Audience members applauded.

Dorward told the crowd that the school district’s state-set tax-levy cap this year will be 2.52 percent. The district, he said, is proposing a 1.95-percent tax-levy increase, bringing the levy up to $10,890,198. The district is expecting $8,008,052 in state aid.

At a meeting last month, Kevin Callagy, the district’s business official, provided a three-year outlook on BKW’s budget. At the forum, Dorward presented an updated set of projections.

Based on the changes in the current proposal, Callagy projects a $21,410,162 budget for 2013-14. A 2-percent increase in the tax levy would mean $11.1 million in total property taxes, and Callagy projects $8,119,873 in state aid.

Then, for the 2014-15 school year, Callagy projects a budget of $21,614,778. A 2-percent increase in the tax levy would mean $11.3 million in total property taxes, and he projects $8,207,654 in state aid.

Improving technology

Dorward also talked about a three-year plan to bring the district’s technology up-to-date.

“We are behind in technology in this district,” said Dorward, “and, I think, if you visit friends and family, and visit people from surrounding communities, you would realize that.”

The first part of the plan involves purchasing $230,000 worth of computers and other equipment in 2012-13.

“The plan would be, as we approach the end of the school year, if there’s excess fund balance, this purchase would be made with excess fund balance, per year. Because it’s purchased as a BOCES service, what we would end up doing is drawing 52.7 percent aid back,” he said, referring to the Board of Cooperative Educational Services.

This means that the district would be reimbursed for $121,210 of that $230,000.

Then, in 2013-14, the district would spend $160,000 more on equipment, meaning it would get $84,320 in aid back.

Then, in 2014-15, it would spend another $160,000 to complete the upgrade process, and, again, $84,320 would be returned in the form of aid.

Karen White, a district parent from West Berne, told Dorward that, while she looks forward to seeing these upgrades, she is concerned that some students who don’t have cable or Internet access at home would be unable to complete certain homework or extra-credit assignments.

“Teachers need to be paying attention to that,” Dorward replied. “They’ve heard it from me; they’ve heard it from the building principals: A student should not be penalized gradewise — and that includes extra credit — because they don’t have the facilities at home to accomplish those things. It doesn’t mean that, sometimes, the student shouldn’t take advantage of staying after school if we have it here, or if a neighbor has it. But, if any parent has a concern related to that type of issue, they should contact their teacher; raise the concern; if it’s not adequately addressed, you contact the building principal; and if that doesn’t work, you contact me. But it shouldn’t be happening.”

White replied, “I’m really excited to see that we’re moving in that direction; it’s so important, because some of those kids can’t get those things.”

Staff changes

The district’s budget also proposed a number of staffing changes: eliminating four positions, while adding six.

“We’re choosing to make some changes this year,” Dorward said at the forum, “in part, to generate cost savings, but also because I think we’re going to end up with a stronger program.”

The proposed changes, which would save a total $87,145, are as follows:

— A full-time technology teacher resigned this year, and had been covered by a substitute. Rather than permanently filling the position with a new employee, those hours will be largely replaced by hiring a tech teacher through BOCES; some of those hours will be filled by another BKW teacher. This reduces the cost of the position from $78,000 to $58,344;

— A full-time custodial-worker’s position is currently open, and will be replaced by a cleaner’s position; this Civil Service title change will reduce the cost of the position from $62,128 to $52,792;

— A reduction of .4 full-time hours for a French teacher. The district also offers Spanish classes. “I think you’re all aware that our enrollment is dropping,” Dorward told the crowd. “We don’t have quite as many kids signing up for French. What the intent would be there would be to allow for those students who are in the French track to complete the French track, but potentially move towards elimination of French as an offering here.” This would save $27,686;

— A full-time English teacher would be eliminated, though this would lead to “more of a loss of several electives, rather than an increase in class size in our core-area English classes,” said Dorward; and

— The school psychologist, who now works three days of the week, would work five days a week, meaning an added cost of $36,658.

“At the present time,” Dorward said, “a lot of our social-work services, a lot of our school psychologist services, are geared towards students who have them provided because it’s written into their IEP,” or individualized education programs, designed to meet the needs of a specific child, typically one with disabilities.

“Some of those support services are offered to students in the general ed. population,” he went on. When more of these services are provided, he said, “that ends up showing up in places like reduced discipline issues in the school…That student, or students, tend to do better; but, also, those around them tend to do better. And, you also tend to see things like a reduced drop-out rate by putting some additional support in place.”

— A pilot program for Aventa, an online learning tool for students who are unable to register for a class at school because of scheduling restrictions, will cost $7,000. While the school currently uses NovaNet for this purpose, this pilot program would be used to determine whether Aventa should replace NovaNet; and

— The school is looking to transfer $30,000 into its food-service program.

“Over the last year,” Dorward said, “there have been some conversations at the board level where the state is asking us to increase the amount we’re charging for lunches, with the ultimate goal of moving towards self-sufficiency with the food-service programs, but we do need to build in a food-service transfer of $30,000.”

Callagy pointed out that the BOCES tech, the psychologist, and the Aventa program are BOCES aidable, and that the aid is not factored into these costs.

And, a reduction of three out of 10 late-bus runs will save an additional $23,400.

Other savings

Other techniques the district has implemented to save money include sharing a transportation supervisor with the Schoharie Central School District, which brought in $47,000 this year.

“Over the last several years, we reduced a number of bus runs,” Dorward went on. “That’s resulted in a total mileage reduction of 119,000 miles — quite a large number.”

The district also eliminated two bus runs in the 2011-12 school year, he said.

And, by putting five old buses up for auction, the district made $13,000.

The district has estimated that the new solar panels, installed as part of the Energy Performance Contract, will save a projected $4,400 a year.

School board members are investigating the potential benefits of bringing in foreign students as a source of revenue, and housing special ed. students from other districts has also been considered, as well as opening up BKW’s new fitness center to the public during certain hours.

“One of the things that attracted me to this school when I came here is that, in a lot of ways, it reminded me of where I’m from,” Dorward told onlookers at the budget forum. “It’s sort of the heart of the community…We’re trying to find ways to open the facilities to the community.”

Dorward also said that the board has been negotiating with the BKW Teachers’ Association, though the two parties have not yet agreed on a new contract. The teachers’ union has had an expired contract since 2009.

At a school board meeting earlier this month, Callagy told the board that, through working with BOCES’ Municipal Benefit Coalition, which has been acting as the town’s health-insurance broker since last year, the district may be able to save 20 percent — $240,000 out of $1.2 million — in prescription-drug-service costs by using Express Scripts Inc. as its provider, instead of Informed Rx.

Dorward said at the forum that these savings have been built into the proposed budget. He went on to say that increases in retirement costs are projected to be smaller than they have been in recent years.

“If you’ve been following the budget process over the past few years, we’ve sort of been working our way through fairly large numbers,” Dorward said of retirement costs. “We believe that is starting to stabilize.”

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