By Colin Hogan
With roughly two-thirds of its budget provided through state aid, the Fulton City School District is left waiting for the New York state to finalize its own budget before it can really plan financially for the next school year.
“We’re at the point, still, of waiting for the state legislature and governor to come to agreement on the budget for the state, which would then direct education aid to school districts across the state,” Superintendent Bill Lynch told the school board Tuesday.
Right now, after completing a second preliminary budget draft without state figures, the district is looking at an estimated $69.2 million in expenditures for the 2015-16 school year — a 2.69 percent increase from this year’s projected operating costs of $67,357,685. Current estimates have the district receiving $43,350,051 in general state aid for the 2015-16 year — about a half-million more than it received last year. However, concrete figures won’t be available until after the state budget passes, the deadline for which is March 31.
The district hopes to use less from its reserves than it did last year. Early budget projections have it using $1.5 million of its fund balance, as opposed to last year’s $2 million. Lynch explained that it was the use of so much fund balance in last year’s budget that prompted the state comptroller’s office to give the district a “moderate” fiscal stress rating.
“That’s a figure ($1.5 million) we really need to find a way to live within, because last year we weren’t really able to replenish our reserves, which led to us being designated as under fiscal stress by the comptroller,” Lynch said.
In their current calculations, district officials are accounting for a 2 percent local tax levy increase, though Lynch told the board Tuesday the goal is to keep it less than that.
“Once we get our state aid that may be able to come down a little bit, and it would certainly not be any higher than that,” Lynch said. “We’re working to keep that down. We want to be sensitive to our local taxpayers and obviously the impact the draining local economy has had on them over the last six to seven years.”
Some on the board, however, felt 2 percent is still asking too much.
“I just don’t think the households in Fulton can afford a 2 percent increase,” said board member Christine Plath.”Again, we don’t know what the state aid is going to be, but I think maybe we need to start looking at some reductions because I don’t think Fulton can support this.”
Lynch mentioned that if reductions were to be made, the district would first look at areas that won’t cut jobs.
“If we have to make reductions, we are willing to look at areas where we can reduce our spending that don’t affect current staff,” Lynch said.
He noted, though, that there might be some retirements in grade levels that are staffed as such “that we could look at some consolidation,” and also said the district could look at ways of reducing its substitute teacher costs.
With those estimates in place, the district would still need to find another $1.4 million to meet its expenses. Lynch hopes that this will be achieved through additional state aid and changes to the district’s Gap Elimination Adjustment — two items state lawmakers and Gov. Andrew Cuomo are currently working out (see related article).
“Those two areas are primarily what we’re looking at to close that $1.4 million gap,” Lynch said. Lynch also said Tuesday that, based on the most recent budget status report, the district is on target to underspend by about $1.15 million during the current school year.
He said, at this point, anticipated revenues are expected to fall short by about $300,000, which would leave the district about $850,000 under budget by the end of the year, barring no major changes.