Delay: Palmer re-shapes BKW budget process

The Enterprise — Marcello Iaia

Lonnie Palmer, Berne-Knox-Westerlo’s interim superintendent, speaks during the Feb. 10 school board meeting where he and the board discussed at length the budget advisory committee, which is to meet several months later than in the past. After his Feb. 24 public presentation on the 2014-15 budget, Palmer intends to meet with the committee made up of board members, students, and community members that typically in the past had started a series of meetings as early as November.

BERNE — By mid-February last year, the Berne-Knox-Westerlo School Board had set overall spending goals for the following fiscal year and heard presentations on its $21.5 million budget from the district’s business official.

The board so far this year has not discussed the details of the 2014-15 spending plan and will reconvene its dormant budget advisory committee after Interim Superintendent Lonnie Palmer gives his presentation on the budget on Monday.

In recent meetings, the regular process of crafting the budget has been the subject of debate among board members, Palmer, and community members.

The board’s deadline for adopting the budget proposal is in late April and it is put up for public vote in May.

“I do not see a purpose for the budget advisory committee as it previously existed, but I do see a good opportunity for public input,” Palmer said this week, adding that the line-by-line examination of the budget done by the committee in the past is not where help is needed.

Palmer and Business Official Mark Kellet started at BKW last summer on a temporary basis. Since then, they have made cuts and consolidated expenses. They are preparing to present a roll-over budget, with the current year’s programs continued with built-in rate and salary increases.

With roughly $600,000 in savings so far, a $200,000 estimated increase in state aid, and ideas for another $100,000 to $300,000 in potential revenue and savings, if enacted, Palmer said he wants to give the board and the community a list of options to set the district up for improved academic performance before he leaves in June.  Kellet reported that the district’s tax levy could be raised by a little more than 3 percent, at a maximum, under the state-set cap on the property-tax levy.

“We’ve made some stumbles this year and we’re late. How do we move forward from here?” board President Joan Adriance asked, punctuating a frank discussion on Feb. 11 about the basic process of getting public input for the budget. “Because, we have to get to something for May, right. And we have to make sure the community has a voice.”

Members of the budget advisory committee were called to meet with the board at a special meeting after Vasilios Lefkaditis, vice president of the board, asked when the committee would meet, setting off a 50-minute debate about its role on Feb. 10. Some board members suggested a public forum be held instead of the budget advisory committee meetings.

“If you want to shut the community out, shut the community out,” said Gerald Larghe to other board members at the Feb. 10 regular meeting. He and Lefkaditis represent the board on the budget advisory committee.

“Shut them out,” Lefkaditis followed.

“That’s up to you three, because obviously it’s a three-two vote,” said Larghe.

“I don’t see it as shutting anybody out,” said board member Chasity McGivern. “I see it as opening it up to a broader sense of our community.”

On Feb. 11, board members had a charter for the advisory committee before them as committee members described their roles as being conduits for information into the community.

Joseph Golden, a Berne Town Board member, said he and other town candidates visit residents and hear their concerns during campaign season.

“Of all people we called on this year, this is just feedback, take it for what it’s worth…They say, ‘Can you do anything about my school taxes?’ It’s the number-one reaction and it’s easy for us. We say, ‘Go to a school board meeting,’” said Golden, a former BKW school board member.

Former board member and retired BKW teacher Helen Lounsbury, Golden’s sister, was in the gallery. She told the board that the superintendent typically interviewed candidates for the budget advisory committee and sought people with financial backgrounds from different communities in the district.

“We lost a lot of history,” school board member Earl Barcomb said of the recent addition of board members and administrators. “It is what it is. Now we have this document. We’ll move forward.”

Board members said during the Feb. 11 meeting that they hadn’t yet seen numbers for the 2014-15 budget. Palmer said he shared a budget schedule with them.

“It aggravates the crap out of me that the school board’s in the fog,” Golden, who was on the budget advisory committee last year, said during the Feb. 11 meeting. “And I’m sure you’re not because you are the chief financial officer, so I’ll bet you talk to him a lot,” Golden said, sarcastically addressing Joan Adriance, the board’s president, and her communication with Palmer.

“Actually, we don’t,” said Adriance.

Palmer said he is probably taking a more risky approach to the process, but that he wants to make a difference for the district in the year he is with it.

“I want to make sure, before somebody says, ‘Oh, no, no, no, don’t go there,’ I want to say, ‘Here’s some options for you. What do you want to buy? What do you want your school district to be able to do?’” said Palmer. “I don’t want the conversation to be only about the tax rate. I want it to be about the school system.”

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