COLONIE — The state is, at best, holding the line on aid to schools and that means both of the major districts in town are scrambling to make ends meet.
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South Colonie is looking at layoffs, said Superintendent David Perry, who just completed his first month heading up the district. The exact number is not yet known, but he said they will impact teachers and staff.
“We did a hiring freeze going back to January. We are not filling positions vacant due to retirement or resignations so there are a number we can reach through attrition. We looked at all items that deal with non-instructional support. But, unfortunately there will be layoffs,” he said of the projected shortfall in the 2020-21 budget. “Our goal is to provide quality programs to our student while at the same time be fiscally responsible to our community.”
The district is working with respective bargaining units in preparation for the cuts, he said.
In North Colonie, Superintendent Joseph Corr began the budget season with the goal of hiring 10 new teachers to handle projected enrollment increases in one of the fastest growing districts in the Capital District.
Then the pandemic hit and that plan is being adjusted. Instead, the district is not replacing positions left vacant due to retirement and other means of attrition to make up for the lost increases in state aid.
“We have to be thoughtful and understanding and compassionate as we put together this year’s budget and we have to be responsible to our students and our residents,” Corr said. “We have to look at retirements and how we look at people who leaving the district to help close the gap. We would rather not fill a retirement position than have someone lose a job. We are doing everything we can to keep everyone employed in North Colonie schools.”
Prior to the economic havoc COVID-19 released on the world the state was already in fiscal trouble. Now, it is facing a shortfall of at least $15 billion, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo has stated state revenues will be re-visited quarterly. Any more shortfalls could impact state aide even more and will certainly get passed onto the districts.
The amount of state aid is generally increased in the annual executive budget and then increased more by the Legislature. In 2018-19 for example, South Colonie received $23.5 million in state aid and this year it was increased by $1.2 million. North Colonie got $18 million in state aid in 2018-19 and this year is getting $19.2 million.
The state mandated tax cap is formulaic and tied into state aide. Those two pieces make up a huge portion of any budget discussion and are still not set in stone. The date of the annual budget vote has been delayed from mid-May to June 1 so the districts will more time to get a better idea of exactly how much state aid they will have to work with and what the exzct tax cap will be.
In North Colonie, the tax cap was going to be between 1 and 2 percent, Corr said. In South Colonie, budget workshops prior to COVID-19 put the tax cap at 3.05 percent and preliminary budgets had a tax increase of about 2.92 percent.
It would take a supermajority of voters to pass a budget with a tax increase above the tax cap, and the prospect of a proposal that exceeds the tax cap is not without serious risk. If voters defeat a proposed budget at the polls, the district would have to revert to the prior year’s spending plan. In the case of South Colonie, should that happen, the shortfall would be in excess of $3 million.
Unlike governments, school districts by law can’t borrow to make up short term shortfalls in a budget and must present to the voters a budget where revenues equal expenses.