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Senator James Skoufis Joins VCSD for School Budget Process Meeting



Senator James Skoufis Attends Valley Central School Budget Process Meeting

 

Valley Central School District held a School Budget Process meeting on Thursday, April 11 to provide an in-depth forum to discuss all factors that are taken into account when a school budget is created.  Senator James Skoufis accepted an invitation from the District to attend the event and give perspective on state funding of school budgets. Girl Scout Cadette Troop 331 attended the event as well with their leaders, Jane Samuelson and Michelle Bray. The troop attended the meeting to work on a merit badge called “Finding Common Ground”.

 

The District presentation examined the many federal and state mandates which must be adhered to, most with very little or no funding attached.  There was also a discussion of foundation aid, which is the bulk of funding from the state, usually referred to as state aid. The state was legally challenged on its formula for this aid over ten years ago and was supposed to fully fund its schools by the 2010-11 school year.  It still has yet to do so. Like many districts, Valley Central is underfunded according to the full-phase in level.

 

Senator Skoufis elaborated on the point of foundation aid, stating that the one-house budget produced by the Senate and Assembly had proposed a $1.2 billion for the state’s school foundation aid.  This was about four times the amount the governor had proposed. He explained that they settled on $600 million for foundation aid which doubled the amount that the governor proposed. Skoufis pointed out that this money was added despite the $3 billion deficit that had to be closed in the budget process because public education is that important to the Legislature.  

 

“Public education is the great equalizer and must be a budget priority,” Skoufis said.  He credits the public education that he received at nearby Monroe-Woodbury School District as the reason that he has been able to serve as an Assemblyman and Senator.

 

The District spent time explaining the tax levy threshold commonly known as the tax cap.  The way the law is written the 2% increase (which can be less if CPI is less than 2%) of the previous year’s levy is only one factor in determining the tax levy with other factors potentially increasing the levy beyond 2%.  However, that is not the case for Valley Central in the 2019-2020 budget.

 

The Valley Central School District tax levy increase in the 2019-20 budget will be 1.05%. The District has used a “simply put” formula to approximate the tax impact on property owners.  This year’s levy would mean that a house assessed at $100,000 (in the Town of Montgomery) would see about a $37.76 annual increase, or a $3.15 monthly increase.

The District had been in close contact with the Town of Newburgh Assessor’s Office regarding properties on Stewart Airfield and their status as PILOTs (Payment in Lieu of Taxes)  The Town of Newburgh Assessor did confirm the properties’ PILOT status on April 5. Those PILOTs were a factor in the District levy being of its lowest tax levys in the past eight years and there is concern that this will make the 2019-20 budget year very tight for Valley Central.

 

Skoufis discussed PILOTs and pointed out correctly used, PILOTs are good incentives for bringing businesses to NYS.  However, he did speak about instances when PILOTs are granted after construction has begun which are not an incentive but just giving a company a break on the backs of local taxpayers and said he has proposed legislation to stop this practice.

 

Superintendent John Xanthis expressed the frustration the District has as an organization which is dependent on the tax base for revenue not having an actual seat or vote at the IDA table.  Xanthis said this frustration is shared by superintendents across the state which has prompted the NYS Council of School Superintendents to seek legislation requiring that School Districts have a vote on PILOTs which will affect them.

 

Time was spent during the presentation of the tax levy also discussing the possible ramifications of not imposing the full tax levy.  The way the tax levy law is designed one year builds upon the last one. By not imposing a full tax levy as allowed by the law, it can cause hardship in the future, since the CPI could be less than 2% in any given year, and since foundation aid does not follow a given incremental increase that can be counted on, or in a year, like this one, when the PILOTs have a negative impact on the levy.   It was pointed out that there are both school districts and local municipalities in the county that are facing large tax levy increases because they have consistently cut the tax levy and used fund balance for re-occuring expenditure putting their organizational fiscal stability at risk.

 

The budget to budget increase of the VCSD 2019-20 budget is 2.69%, which is very close to the CPI of 2.44% despite areas within the budget like health care and retirement costs that are well over the CPI.  The District has worked hard to look for efficiencies where it can.

One of the budget priorities that was discussed year long in the three Viking Curriculum for Excellence meetings and through the ThoughtExchange forum was the importance of STEAM educational initiatives and preparing students for the future.  Director of Curriculum, Marianne Serratorre has proposed repurposing elementary libraries and computer lab curriculum to create STEAM lab and Maker-Spacer programs. Serratorre noted that VCSD presently only offers STEAM education at the elementary level as an enrichment program available for 3 weeks per school at the 4th and 5th grade level to a limited number of students.  Serratorre’s plan for 2019-20 will make STEAM education available to all elementary students through the changing of curriculum. It also makes use of current teachers to provide the program rather than establishing new positions.

 

The District has also sought budget saving measures by using money left over from capital projects to fund repairs to the VCHS Auditorium lighting and sound systems which have not been seriously addressed in almost 40 years.  Additionally, security at VCSD will be addressed through a Dept. of Justice Grant secured by the work of Director of Technology, Christopher Mohr. The VCSD radio communication system will be linked directly to emergency first responder agencies through this grant.

 

The proposition for the establishment of a Capital Reserve Fund was also explained in detail.  In summary the proposition will establish the reserve fund with a limit of total funds that can be moved there set at $10 million.  Any reserve established must have a limit. When established, the Capital Reserve Fund will have no funds in it. The Board of Education will fund it over time when there are monies available.  It is generally referred to as a “rainy day” fund for either unanticipated capital projects or to help the flow of funds between the close of a project and waiting for the state to return building aid.  Any expenditure from the fund will have to be approved through a general vote.

 

The VCSD 2019-20 budget maintains all programs with modest increases to establish STEAM education at the elementary level as part of the daily program and expand on the Mental Health/Wellness initiatives, both of which have direct student impact.  

 

Senator James Skoufis responded to questions at the end of the presentation.  He spoke about the need for NYS to seriously look at the funding of its school system and consider possibilities other than property tax pointing out that NYS is only one of thirteen states that still relies on the property tax system for school funding.

 

The VCSD budget with its 1.05% tax levy was presented to the Board of Education at their April 8th meeting and the Board directed the Superintendent’s office to move forward with the budget as presented.  The adoption of the budget by the BOE is scheduled for Thursday, April 25. The District plans on public presentations of the budget after its adoption.


Senator Skoufis and Cadette Troop 331

Senator James Skoufis with Cadette Girl Scout Troop 331 and leaders, Michelle Bray and Jane Samuelson at the VCSD School Budget Process meeting.