Building School Budgets: Priorities vs. resources

Gwen Chamberlain

Before Penn Yan Central School officials begin building a budget for the 2014-15 school year, they already know they will have to make changes in spending to avoid a double-digit tax levy increase.

But some of the teaching staff and members of the public are beginning to voice concerns about the impacts of possible changes.

A statement released by Tina Webber and Lisa Garvey, co-presidents of the Penn Yan Teachers Association says, in part, "The most important resources we need to educate our students are human resources — trained professionals to work in our libraries and our computer labs, and to work with our children in appropriately-sized groups and classrooms on the skills and behaviors that they are trying to accomplish. From our perspective, we feel that there is no more room to scale back further, or to take from one resource to give to another." (See their entire message below.)

Before the Jan. 29 regular school board meeting, Superintendent David Hamilton outlined the process for developing a budget. About 25 people — including many teaching staff — turned out for the presentation, where Hamilton said if no changes are made to current expenditures, the tax levy will increase by 11.52 percent. The driving forces for that increase include a 20 percent increase in the district's share of the Employee Retirement System, a 16 percent increase in the district's share of the Teachers Retirement System, and a 10 percent increase in health insurance benefit costs. Increases in those three items will account for $707,630 in additional spending.

Combine that spending increase with no increase in state aid, and the budget would go up $1.958 million — a gap that would need to be filled by local property tax dollars.

Hamilton said administrators plan to have a first draft of the spending plan ready for presentation at the Feb. 12 board meeting. He said the process of planning the instructional budget begins at the classroom level, where individual staff gather price quotes and other details to present requests to the department or grade level. All the requests at that level are evaluated and passed on to the principal or director level and then on to the district leadership team. At each level, the requests are evaluated and revised or adjusted according to the bigger picture at that particular level.

It's up to the district leadership team to come up with a reasonable spending plan to present to the school board.

Following Hamilton's presentation, a few people had comments and questions. A first grade teacher said she is concerned about the impact that reductions in reading teacher positions has had in her classroom. She said combined with the reductions in teacher aides, some of her students are almost a year behind the reading level they should be at. She added that research shows that if the students don't achieve benchmarks early in their education, they will be behind their whole life.

Other questions were raised about the differences between the district's Pre-K program and the Pre-K programs offered by outside agencies in the elementary school, computer and technology access and reductions in library staffing.

Hamilton said the district's long term vision is that technology won't be a rare thing that's kept in a specific locked room; that it will be everywhere, but the question is how to get to that point, moving to the use of more portable and prevalent devices.

In response to a question about the district reversing past staffing reductions, specifically the decision to reduce the elementary library assistant position last year, Hamilton said the administrators will "absolutely re-assess changes."

At the conclusion of the exchange, Webber said the comments that were brought up by the public echo what she and co-president Lisa Garvey have been saying to the board of education. "You're trying to be responsible with the community's money, but we're not sure the community knows what we really need. I think if the community knew what the priorities are, they would want to step up and support them."

Hamilton acknowledged the past couple of budget years have been "tough," and noted the voters have stepped up and voted yes to support the budgets that were presented.

Hamilton made a similar presentation during the regular board meeting.

Other business on the board's regular agenda included:

• MIDDLE SCHOOL EXTENDED DAY: Melissa Lamphier and middle school students made a presentation on the types of activities that students are participating in during the extended day. Club activities include an art club, card-making, knitting and more.

• COMPUTER LAB: Hamilton said a presentation will be given at the Feb. 12 meeting to address a question that came up during the last meeting about the use of the Academy computer lab.

• VETERAN'S EXEMPTIONS: School district officials have learned that offering a property tax exemption to veterans is an option that is now available to school districts. Hamilton said the exemption does not change the amount of money that needs to be raised by local property taxes, but it shifts more of the burden to property owners who are not eligible for the exemption. "It's an issue that requires a larger conversation," he said, adding that it's not a decision that needs to be made immediately.

Statement from Penn Yan Teachers Association Co-Presidents Tina Webber and Lisa Garvey:

During the time that we have been the leaders of the Teachers' Association, The Penn Yan School District has been vigilant about trying to be as fiscally responsible as possible.

A significant amount of "right-sizing" has occurred. Although we would not argue that much of this may have been logical, and even necessary, we do feel that there may have been some unintended ramifications. Consequently, we feel that it would be prudent for our district to re-think some of the decisions that have been made over the past couple of years, and wise for them to think very carefully about the decisions to be made in the current budget process.

As the people in the schools and classrooms, working with our students, our members see first-hand the effects of the scaling back that has already happened. Of course, we want to do our very best to prepare our students for success in the next grade level, the next school building, and the world of college and careers, but this does require sufficient resources. The most important resources we need to educate our students are human resources — trained professionals to work in our libraries and our computer labs, and to work with our children in appropriately-sized groups and classrooms on the skills and behaviors that they are trying to accomplish.

From our perspective, we feel that there is no more room to scale back further, or to take from one resource to give to another. Our community has historically been highly supportive of our schools and of our children's education. Is this only because we traditionally don't ask for much by way of a tax levy increase?

We don't think so.

We believe that our community also votes to pass a budget based on the value they place on such things as quality instruction and providing for student opportunities. We believe that, if we need to ask for a little more, they will continue their support, and will trust that the district is continuing to be fiscally responsible by only asking for what is truly needed to do that important work.

It is the district's goal to be a regional leader in the number of graduates who are college and career ready. As such, we sincerely hope that the district and the members of our school board will do their best to fully understand and convey what is needed to reach that goal, and will put their trust in our gracious and caring community to again show their generous support for our children's education and for their future.

Tina Webber and

Lisa Garvey,

PYTA Co-Presidents