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The $2.6 million budget gap that was estimated in the fall was based on preliminary information about several budget factors that continued to evolve, as they do each year. The following factors helped close the gap without the need for any program reductions while bringing the tax levy increase to 2.34 percent:
Yes. The state's tax levy cap legislation requires school districts to complete an eight-part formula to arrive at a figure that represents the maximum tax levy that can be proposed while requiring a simple majority vote. For Niskayuna next year, this calculated limit equals a tax levy increase of 4.52 percent. The proposed tax levy increase of 2.34 percent is below this limit.
The state's continuing policy of withholding promised school aid (the Gap Elimination Adjustment) has resulted in financial challenges for New York's schools. While the recent restoration of some state aid and the improved health of district reserves will help, district leaders believe that the long-term sustainability of school programs will require a continued focus on operating efficiently and the state to provide schools with their full share of promised funding.
Some planned administrative retirements for next year provided an opportunity to consider changes to the district's administrative structure. The restructuring plan being implemented for next year calls for the elimination of 3.5 full-time equivalent (FTE) administrative positions, which will save $382,000 in salary costs:
The restructuring plan relies on the strength of internal leadership across the administrative team. Some administrators will move into new positions, while many others will add new supervisory and managerial duties to their current roles. District leaders will monitor the new structure next year to make sure the needs of students, parents, and programs are being met.
The district remains focused on saving money in areas that do not impact students. The self-insured health insurance program implemented in 2009 provides annual savings of more than $400,000 compared to the cost of outside carriers. The purchase of the transportation facility on Hillside Avenue saves the district $135,000 per year compared to lease costs. Subcontracting for bus drivers is projected to save $350,000 this year, the first year of using a private carrier.
The district is also pursuing new forms of revenue that will help maintain or enhance student programs without the need for greater taxpayer support. Officials are seeking tenants for the Hillside Avenue facility. Next year, the International Scholars Program will bring tuition-paying students to the high school, and the distance learning program will begin. This summer, a new district enrichment program will allow students to explore interests and develop skills through fee-based courses. Plans are also underway for a campaign to raise community-wide awareness about the Education Enrichment Fund that was established by the Board last year.
The district has improved its level of reserves over the last few years. This is the result of a concerted effort, including careful budgeting and spending reductions. The district ended last school year with $2.2 million in unassigned fund balance, which can be thought of as a school district's general savings account. This amount represented 2.91 percent of the district's total budget; New York state allows districts to maintain up to 4 percent of their budgets as unassigned fund balance. A surplus that is projected for the current year and continued careful fiscal planning will help the district respond to future fiscal challenges and meet unanticipated needs.
The state budget approved this spring included a Property Tax Credit that may provide a rebate check to homeowners beginning in the upcoming school year. In the first year of this rebate program, a district must stay within its 2014-15 tax levy cap, which Niskayuna is, in order for taxpayers to benefit. In the second year, a district must stay within its 2015-16 tax levy cap and receive state approval for a shared services/efficiency plan.
If a district complies with the requirements, homeowners who are eligible for the School Tax Relief Program, or STAR, will receive a rebate check from the state for a portion of school taxes paid. Residents will still receive a school tax bill late in the summer, and will still need to pay their annual taxes. Additional details about the program, including when rebate checks will be mailed by the state, are still forthcoming.
If the proposed budget is defeated by voters on May 20, the Board of Education will have three options: present the same budget to voters a second time, present a revised budget to voters, or adopt a contingent budget.
If the budget is defeated a second time, the Board must adopt a contingent budget. In addition, a provision of the property tax levy "cap" law stipulates that under a contingent budget the district can levy a tax no greater than that of the current year. In this event, the district's tax levy would need to be reduced by $1,239,657, which would require officials to consider reductions that would affect staffing and programs.
No. In early March, New York state notified the district that reimbursements received for the capital project completed from 2006 to 2013 would be adjusted retroactively based on actual project costs, and the district would need to repay the state for some of the aid received. However, the $1.9 million cited at that time was a preliminary figure. The district has until June 2014 to file the final reports with the state. District leaders are working with the project architect and state aid experts on this process, and anticipate that the final amount of the refund will be significantly less than the original figure. Once the state reviews the reports and makes a final determination, any refund owed to the state would be repaid through reserve funds and a range of repayment options.
It is not uncommon for school districts in New York to face an aid adjustment following capital project work. This occurs because reimbursements are based on cost estimates prior to the completion of work and submission of final cost reports. The state recently changed its practice in this area so that reimbursements only begin after all work is completed.