‘A difficult budget year’

Warwick. The Warwick Valley School District faces dual challenges caused by COVID-19 pandemic: maintaining education process while kids and teachers remain at home, and closing gap in proposed budget.

| 22 Apr 2020 | 02:58

    The Warwick Valley School Board again held its monthly meeting by teleconference on Thursday, April 16, as members continue social distancing to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

    Before offering the current version of his proposed budget for the 2020-21 school year, Superintendent of Schools Dr. David Leach opened his remarks with some praise: “I’m proud of the teachers, students and parents during this difficult time.”

    He said that the district had received mainly praise (and some criticism) in its response to the pandemic, particularly concerning classwork assignments, based on feedback from students and district parents alike.

    Leach wanted to “acknowledge the hard work” of administrators and teachers.

    Teachers and students have been using Google Classroom to facilitate remote instruction.

    Teachers record their lessons three times a week, and students can log in to see their teachers, Leach added, “even if it’s just for a few minutes a day.”

    The district is using Google Meet for teachers to provide office hours and confer with their students, both individually and in small groups. “We’ve received positive feedback from the kids,” Leach said.

    He added that teachers have reduced the student workload, balancing appropriate instruction, without “bombarding the kids with busy work.”

    Report cards

    Students at the elementary level will have teacher feedback but no grades for this quarter; the same will be true for the middle school; high school teachers will combine results from the second and third quarters.

    Teachers will also reach out to parents, Leach said, providing updates.

    Leach said that he was “proud of our teachers and administration,” with regard to converting their classrooms to distance learning on short notice, while also focusing on their students’ well-being.

    School closures extended, budget vote postponed

    Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order extending school closures through May 15, and pushing school board elections and budget votes back to June 1 at the earliest.

    ‘Difficult’ budget year

    The current school budget is $95,089,284; the proposed budget for 2020-21 is $96,684,985, an increase of just under $1.6 million, or a 1.68 percent increase.

    The school tax levy for the current (2019-20) school year is $62,506,673.

    The tax levy increase for the proposed budget is $1,636,339, or a 2.6 percent increase – which, according to Leach, was reduced by $172,492.

    New York State Aid is expected to decrease by nearly half a million dollars, or 1.87 percent.

    The superintendent “knew it was going to be a difficult budget year,” even before the pandemic, as New York State was already facing its own budget deficit, now grown to some $16 billion.

    As a result, Leach said state aid to education in the New York State budget will increase by less than 0.5 percent.

    There will be no state aid beyond foundation aid: the loss of this assistance from Albany is expected to be offset by emergency funding under the Federal CARES act.

    Foundation aid remained flat at 2019-2020 levels, according to Leach, remaining at $18.4 billion. He added that the state is now more than $3.8 billion below full funding of the formula.

    Leach said that the district may end up using its fund balance to help fill the gap.

    Adding to the challenge – there will now be three assessment periods during the year: April 1-30; May 1-June 30; July 1-December 21. If revenues come in below budget under this new rule, Albany can reduce allocations, making it more difficult to plan school budgets, Leach said.

    According to New York Deputy Secretary of Education Dan Fuller, “We are in a terrible spot. We cannot provide assurances. If we have to make cuts, it will be because of what the federal government will/won’t provide.”

    Potential long-term economic and budgetary effects of the Coronavirus could likely include:

    · Limited ability to generate revenue in New York State, as businesses close and/or people lose their jobs as a result of the pandemic: less revenue translates to less School Aid;

    · Low inflation based on the Consumer Price Index (CPI), which could make the tax cap lower than it currently is: 0 percent CPI and no growth rate could lead to a downturn in the local economy; and

    · Non-tax revenue, such as district rental properties, are projected to decrease.

    Combining those factors with “the biggest health crisis of our lives” would lead to increases in health insurance costs and higher premiums; a declining stock market would lead to increases in district contributions to retirees’ pensions.

    Leach said that his administration is working to balance making the necessary cuts with “the least impact on students.”

    Closing the gap: likely cuts
    As the Warwick Valley School administration strives to fill the budget shortfall, it has identified these prospective targets:
    * Reduction in communication services $150,000
    * Teacher retirement savings $605,715
    * Employee retirement savings $126,485
    * Administrative staff reduction $189,686
    * Reduction in Workers Comp costs $ 14,860
    Since New York State 2020-21 budget was enacted, another $397,430 in reductions will be necessary in these areas: Professional development, Instructional, Buildings & Grounds, Benefits and BOCES.
    Total $1,484,176