BALLSTON SPA – As the district finalizes the budget for the next school year it’s doing so with a keen eye toward projected revenue declines in the years that follow. [Read more…]
BALLSTON SPA – Superintendent Joseph Dragone presented the 2014-2015 tentative school budget at last night’s meeting of the Board of Education held at the Ballston Spa High School. [Read more…]
BALLSTON SPA — Over the past few budget cycles, the Ballston Spa Central School District has managed to deal with the fallout from the Great Recession pretty well. Superintendent Dragone, the Board of Education and the district administrators, teachers and staff have done a remarkable job of working the numbers in the face of some rather daunting challenges.
This year, all the efforts were rewarded when the budget they developed passed by a huge margin. Fully three-quarters of the district residents who voted said yes. And that’s to a budget with a 4.2 percent increase in spending and a 1.5 percent rise in the tax levy (although it’s highly likely the actual tax rate won’t go up in August, a fact which undoubtedly helped the vote).
It’s a commendable achievement, especially when you consider the huge and unavoidable jump in pension and health care costs and the huge and unavoidable spending mandated from on high they had to contend with. Taken together, those two factors didn’t leave a whole lot of room for Dragone and his people to maneuver. But they managed to work around whatever obstacles were there and come up with a very tidy budget of just under $80 million to present to voters.
That’s a big number by any measure. But down at the bottom of the budget proposal were a few other propositions voters had to approve or reject. One was funding to replace some worn out district vehicles, another was to kick some money to the Ballston Spa Public Library, and a third was for $28,000 to go to the Ballston Area Recreation Commission.
Now, $28,000 might not seem like much when the overall budget number is so big. But to BARC, an organization specializing in creating low-cost youth programs on a shoestring, it’s a pretty sizable, and badly needed, amount of money. We think it’s great district voters approved it.
Even better is what the money will go to. BARC works closely with the school district in designing its programs, and even though it operates independently the two are very much hand in glove. Wherever there’s slack, BARC picks it up. There are enrichment programs, sports programs, a theater group. Kids of all ages can do anything from learn to hit a baseball to learning a new language. All of it supports the school district’s mission of creating educated, well-rounded young citizens capable of contributing to their local communities, culture and economy.
That’s a lot of bang for the buck.
And it doesn’t stop with the kids. If you’re an adult interested in, say, coaching, BARC has a place for you. It’s a great chance for grownups to contribute to their community, not to mention have a little fun in the process.
It’s also a great reason to have something like BARC around. We think anyone who looks objectively at the strides the Ballston Spa Central School District has made since he took the helm would have to say Superintendent Dragone is a truly great educator and administrator. But we think he would be the first to tell you he’s had an awful lot of help, and it’s come from a lot of different places. One is the business community, which has been terrific in supporting the Early College High School Program. There can be little doubt it’s going to serve as a valuable conduit between our youth and the workplace for years to come.
But the future is not just about jobs. It’s also about growing up to become a responsible, committed, productive and law-abiding citizen, and in that part of the equation schools can only do so much. When they run out of real estate it’s up to others to step in. It starts with families first, of course, but after home and school it’s incumbent on us as a society to support the many nonprofit and service organizations created to help.
In the case of the May 21 budget vote, we did just that. The school budget was the big fish in the pond, but after months of review and presentations it was easy to see it was absolutely the best that could be done. The little BARC nugget buried at the bottom of the ballot may have been harder to see. But the results aren’t, and that makes this a good budget for Ballston Spa.
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The March 20 Ballston Spa Central School District Board of Education meeting began with a tune from the High School Troupe’s spring production of the Tony Award-winning musical “In the Heights,” opening on Friday, March 22. Members of the Troupe sang the hit “96,000,” bringing the audience a fresh taste of the musical before the board turned to its official agenda.
Sharon D’Agostino, principal of Malta Avenue Elementary School, then recognized several Student Council representatives for their participation in both community parades and Spirit Week.
“They hosted a school wide event to make snowflakes for students the students of Sandy Hook Elementary School after the tragedy,” D’Agostino said. “The also raised money for our sister school Massapequa with a Hat Day that raised $510.12. They truly are showing what we call the Malta Way in doing unselfish acts for the school, community and beyond.”
Superintendent of Schools Joseph P. Dragone then stepped up to the podium to address the changes to the budget and other issues surrounding the plan. The changes from March 6 board meeting and the next steps in the budget process were the main topics covered.
The current draft 2013-2014 budget has been revised to $79,634,892, roughly $174,000 less then the proposed amount from the meeting on March 6. The decrease is due to the total costs of the health insurance renewals. The overall increase is 4.2 percent from the current budget year.
“In the last five years, general support has only gone up 1 percent, transportation 1 percent, construction 9.8 percent and distributive cost 26.2 percent,” Dragone said. “In total our five year budget increase is about 2.7 percent.”
Dragone then turned to where the political situation stood as of 4:30 p.m. on March 20. The main issue for the school was the state budget and what will happen with both the remaining fiscal stimulus funds and available grant monies.
“It’s less about education and more about broader policy,” Dragone said. “They did say they will not use a ‘message of necessity’ to expedite the passage of budget bills, since it backfired so splendidly with the SAFE Act.”
With the budget bills in limbo as of meeting time, the school was waiting to be informed of the amount of aid the school will receive from the state before they could finalize the budget numbers for the school.
State officials announced a preliminary agreement on the budget after the conclusion of the meeting, but it was unclear as of press time what the agreement means specifically for the district.
The increase of access to technology within and outside the school was the next item on the agenda. Technology access creates environments to increase a student’s chances for success, Dragone said. Children in kindergarten are working on computers for math exercises, he said.
Dragone outlined how increased access to digital tools is the trend both currently and for the foreseeable future. The overflowed backpacks stuffed with large textbooks and binders are rapidly become a thing of the past, he said, and the mission is to prepare children for higher education and the workforce in the current environment of innovation.
“If a 6-year-old can understand and use such digital tools, so can all students, and so can all of us,” Dragone said. The superintendent said “shame on us” if students were forced to rely on textbooks and paper in an age when they had constant access to online learning tools.
Due to the snow day on Tuesday, March 19, the Early College High School Information Night at Hudson Valley Community College’s TEC-SMART facility has been rescheduled for tonight, March 21 at 6:30 p.m.
At the close of his presentation Dragone outlined expectations for the next meeting. The final budget for 2013-2014 will be presented that night, including some of the missing revenue pieces. It’s possible the budget could be adopted that evening.
The next district school board meeting will be held Wednesday, April 10 at 7 p.m. in the high school library.
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The Ballston Spa Central School District Board of Education held their first meeting of the month on Wednesday, March 6, with the agenda focused on the continuing development of the district’s budget. However, the well-attended meeting started with the recognition of numerous staff and students.
Jeffrey Palmer, principal of Milton Terrace South, welcomed Kate Wanerka and Karin Fine to the podium to share the story of their fundraising mission, Have a Heart. The school and community pulled together to raise funds and clothing for 250 families displaced by Superstorm Sandy.
“Through community effort we were able to raise over $1,600 to send down to the folks in Massapequa, including gift cards, clothing and other items that benefited our sister school,” Palmer said.
Music teacher Tracy DeRagon awarded numerous students on their participation in All-County Choral and Jazz Band. The musicians are chosen from 15 different school districts in Warren and Saratoga County to participate in a two-day festival.
“None of these students knew each other beforehand,” DeRagon said. “They are standing next to people they don’t know and are creating something. By the end of the weekend, it is just phenomenal to hear the results of their hard work.”
Superintendent of Schools Joseph P. Dragone then stepped up to the podium to address the budget and several of the components affecting it. The tax cap calculation, draft budget summary and unanswered revenue questions were the topics covered.
The current tax levy limit for the 2012-2013 school year is $42,484,535. Next year’s 2013-2014 projected tax levy limit is $43,854,314. The allowable levy limit therefore increases by approximately $1.4 million dollars, or 3.22 percent.
“I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times,” Dragone said. “Two percent doesn’t mean anything. It will never mean anything. There is no such thing as a school district having a two percent tax cap.”
Dragone continued on to explain the Gap Elimination Adjustment figures. The graph he used displayed the amount of money lost per student based on the law, which bases the amount of aid received by the school on district wealth.
The district lost $950 dollars per student.
The current draft budget is set at $79,809,000, roughly a $3.5 million increase from the year before. From a five-year perspective, the budget has increased by 13.7 percent since 2008-2009, from $70,162,308 to the current estimated level.
“In the past five years general support has gone up 1 percent,” Dragone said. “The transportation costs has increased $31,000 in five years. I’m proud of the efficiency that happens in all of these areas.”
The total projected budget increase is $3,414,490. When approximately $3.23 million for healthcare, pensions, FICA and contractual obligations is subtracted from the budget, the total budget increase is only $186,490, or a 0.24 percent change from last year.
“So out of $79 million, $3.4 million is all attributed to four things,” Dragone said. “So the reality is the things that what we can and can not control depends on how pension costs rise.”
At the close of his presentation Dragone outlined expectations for the next meeting. The presentation then will include changes to the draft of the 2013-2014 budget, revenue projections/state aid and the next steps in preparing to finalize the budget.
The next district school board meeting will be held Wednesday, March 20 at 7 p.m. in the high school library.
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BY RICHARD HALLETT
At its March 21 regular business meeting, the Ballston Spa Central School District Board of Education gave district residents a big vote of confidence.
How big? About $42.6 million big.
That’s the tax levy the district has proposed for its 2012-13 budget. The tax levy is the total amount of property taxes a school must collect to balance its budget. A $42.6 million tax levy for next year would cover the costs of doing business on a projected $76.4 million budget. With the proposed levy, there would be no need to cut programs or staff; everything would remain on track and status quo.
But there’s a new law in town—the “2 percent tax cap”—and it’s changed the way school districts do budgets.
The tax cap, voted into law by state legislators last June, is designed to keep annual property taxes from escalating beyond reasonable limits. The dollar amount of that cap, or “tax levy limit,” is calculated on a district-wide basis using a complicated eight-step formula.
According to district school Superintendent Dr. Joseph Dragone, the district’s tax levy limit for next year computes to $41.5 million. To hit that mark, he said, the district would have to trim about $1 million in expenditures, including staff and program cuts, and maybe even pull the plug on the high school’s swimming pool.
That’s something the board does not want to see happen—and it hopes district voters feel the same way.
Enter the override option.
Voters can override the restrictions of a tax cap by exercising what Gov. Andrew Cuomo calls the law’s “built-in relief valve,” a 60 percent voter approval option.
In other words, school budgets can exceed the tax cap—in Ballston Spa’s case, $42.6 million instead of $41.5 million—if approved by 60 percent of district voters.
When asked by school board President Keith Stewart which way they wished to proceed—make cuts or exceed the cap—all five board members present said they preferred the higher tax levy, confident voters would agree to support a plan that sustains quality programs and good teachers.
“We’ve crunched all we can crunch,” said board member Nancy Fodera. “I can’t see reducing any more.”
“I don’t want to cut any arts or athletics,” said board member Kevin Schaefer. “They’re important too.”
“From what I hear, the public wants to keep the status quo, to keep the programs we have,” said school board Vice President Jeanne Obermayer. “I’ve even heard our business partners call us ‘the visionary district’.”
“We’ve had the community behind us on everything we’ve done to make Ballston Spa a better school district,” said Stewart. “For us to think we don’t have the support of the community would be to misread the voters.”
Dragone agreed, noting how much the district has advanced and accomplished over the last three budget cycles despite dwindling state aid, no mandate relief, and higher pension and health care costs.
To learn more about this year’s budget-building process, the board urges voters to visit the district’s website at www.bscsd.org to find a schedule of upcoming budget presentations taking place throughout the community prior to the final budget vote in mid-May.
The next school board meeting will be held Wednesday April 4 at 7 p.m. at the high school library.
Each year the climb seems to get a bit steeper for our local school districts. Amazingly, in an era which can only be described as a New Gilded Age, where Wall Street titans rake in enormous bonuses and accumulate almost unimaginable wealth (and this, after nearly destroying the global economy through their recklessness and finding rescue with public funds), public schools across the state struggle to fulfill their vital social mission. Where a select few sit atop a mountain of gold, school administrators face instead a mountain of debt.
In the case of our own Ballston Spa Central School District, the mountain is about $3 million high. That is certainly not the fault of Superintendent Joseph Dragone and his staff, who have done a remarkable job of not only keeping the district going, but advancing it in the face of fiscal challenges that can only be described as daunting.
It is certainly not the fault of the taxpayers of our community, who voted to approve this school year’s $72.4 million budget, including a modest tax hike, in May. As we said at the time, and we say again, we are proud of our friends and neighbors for their recognition of the importance of the school system to our civic health, as well as their willingness to step forward and pitch in with their hard-earned dollars.
It is certainly not the fault of the rank-and-file either, the teachers and administrators and staff whose dedication and sense of duty are the driving force behind the success of our schools. While we are all aware of the many stories of pension abuse and overly generous public employee contracts, we must in all honesty say there is little in our local school district to complain about. One would be hard-pressed to find a luxury car in any BSCSD employee parking lot.
Rather, responsibility can be placed squarely at the feet of our state government, whose mismanagement of the budget on both the revenue and the spending sides has brought us to our current state of affairs. It was the unwillingness or, perhaps, inability of a generation of leaders to face up to the mounting economic inequalities and our state’s looming fiscal crisis that caused the problems we confront today.
Since the 2002-2003 school year, state aid to our district has dropped by nearly 10 percent. We can expect it to drop even further, and soon, as Gov. Andrew Cuomo struggles to balance the budget and attempts to stabilize an untenable fiscal situation. We understand the challenges he faces, and we recognize the tough choices he and the legislature will have to make.
But we feel it would be remiss of us to not point out the vast untapped pool of wealth collecting at the feet of the Wall Street financial community. We are loathe to ever recommend tax increases, as we believe wealth is best left in the hands of the people rather than the government serving them. But we also believe there is a point where the gains of those who would manipulate the equities and credit markets can only be considered ill-gotten, and in reaching that point increased taxation considered only just. Truly, it has hard to argue that point wasn’t passed long ago.
Trimming the size of government is always a laudable goal. Limiting its cost and scope to allow private, civil society to prosper and grow is always desirable. But allowing a narrow group to walk away with outsized piles of treasure while everyday, middle-class parents, teachers, staffers and administrators attempt to scrape together enough money to adequately educate our children serves neither purpose. To cut fat is one thing; to slit the artery that feeds our future is quite another. In these trying times perhaps it is time to put rhetoric aside in favor of a cold, clear, hard economic analysis–the kind which tells us exactly who bears the cost for whose benefit.