Liverpool Central School District Superintendent Dr. Richard N. Johns presented his $135.7 million budget proposal to the board of education and about 35 members of the public Monday night.
Johns’ 2013-14 proposed budget, which represents a $2,044,983 increase from last year, makes some cuts and restores some items previous budgets have cut. It relies heavily on the district’s reserves to close a $9 million gap.
“This year, the… gap that we faced… was a chasm that would require cutbacks equivalent to 100 positions,” Johns said in his budget message. “Such a reduction would necessarily cause the district to have to tell current students that some of the opportunities provided to past generations of Liverpool students would no longer be available to them.”
In his message, Johns excoriated the state government for their repeated cuts to public education. He was particularly critical of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Gap Elimination Adjessment, which he said has cost the district tens of millions of dollars over the last five years.
“If the district continues, for even one more year, with the deleterious burden of the Gap Elimination [Adjustment], it will have to consider reductions and/or elimination of student opportunities that most of us would consider fundamental aspects of public education in Liverpool, New York.”
The Gap Elimination Adjustment is a reduction in school aid the state enacted in order to reduce its deficit. In Liverpool, that amount has ranged from $8.3 million to $10 million each of the last five years.
“Further sacrifices in education come at too high a cost,” Johns said, asserting that the state has not made public education a priority. “This is killing us. It’s absolutely killing us.”
This year’s budget includes the largest increase in retirement costs Johns said he has ever seen. Last year, the district was mandated by the state to pay $6,000,153 into the teacher’s retirement system. This year, that goes up to $8,235,007. Over the last five years, the district’s payments to the Teachers Retirement System (TRS) have gone up 94.47 percent, while payments to the Employee Retirement System (ERS), which covers all district staffers except teachers, have gone up 147.35 percent.
Part of this year’s increase will be taxed locally, as will $507,898 in capital bonds. The total proposed tax levy for the 2013-14 school year, including PILOTS and new construction, is $74,581,208. That represents a 2.82 percent increase over last year.
Johns explained that the true increase was only 2 percent.
“You look at this and you say, ‘The district is raising my taxes by 2.82 percent,’” he said. “That’s not true. Your taxes went up 2 percent only. That .82 percent is tacked on by the state for property not yet in the tax base. I think they only add it together to confuse you. It certainly confuses me.”
The budget proposal included cutting the district’s late buses at a savings of $47,000. Instead, there will be a small discretionary budget, and building principals can contract for a late bus for certain activities.
There were few other major cuts; instead, this budget called for reinstating programs previous budgets have eliminated. Among them are the superintendent’s assistant and seventh-grade foreign language education.
“It was a problem for kids to complete their sequencing [as required by the New York State Board of Regents], as well as for our principals in terms of scheduling,” Johns said of the restoration of seventh-grade foreign language.
Johns said that, based on the last few years, he is hopeful that the legislature will increase the aid proposed to the district by about $1 million.
“I’ve included that in my budget this year, even though I’ve never done it before,” he said. “Is it risky? Sure. We don’t know if that money’s going to be there. But history tells us that it will.”
Johns pointed out that, while enrollment has declined slightly over the last five years, staffing has been reduced significantly. In 2008-09, Liverpool’s enrollment was 7,661. This year, it’s 7,306. Staffing, meanwhile, in the district has dropped from 1,316 to 1,120.
“You can make very effective people ineffective by burdening them,” Johns said.
The board will continue to discuss and modify the budget at future BOE meetings. The board must approve a budget by Monday, April 8. The budget vote will be held Tuesday, May 21.
This year’s school budget vote will also include a proposition on universal busing. The district has provided the service since 2007, but the proposal never went to a public vote; it was just voted on by the board. The board must put it to a public referendum and have the public approve universal busing so that they can continue the program.
“Only the voting populace can determine whether we’re going to provide busing beyond what the state mandates,” Johns said. “We really jeopardize the entire program if we don’t put a vote to the people.”
The proposed wording of the proposition is available on the district’s website. In addition, literature will soon be mailed throughout the district.
In other business:
The search for the LCSD’s new superintendent is underway. BOE President Patricia DeBona-Rosier said that all positions on the district’s stakeholder committees have been filled. The groups were to meet with Dr. Lucy Martin of Castallo and Silky Consultants, the firm helping the district find a new superintendent, on Tuesday.
In addition, a meeting will be held for the public at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at the district office to discuss the progress made in the search so far and the qualifications for which the community is looking in a superintendent.
The board will hold a work session after the meeting.
Two students have petitioned the district to allow them to compete on teams in other districts because the LCSD doesn’t offer those particular sports. DeBona-Rosier said the parents have agreed to assume all the costs.
Board member Donald Cook asked who assumes the liability for those students competing with other schools’ teams.
“I have no problem with the concept that if we don’t provide a team and somebody else does, they can go and do that.” Cook said. “But we have no managerial say over who is working with that student. Do we get some kind of waiver or something?”
Neither Johns or Athletic Director George Mangicaro had a definitive answer, but Mangicaro said he would look into it.
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.