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October 6, 2020 - 8:25pm

Deep cuts, tax increase may be needed to keep City Schools running

posted by Howard B. Owens in City Schools, news, notify, batavia, schools, education.

Batavia city schools are looking at a nearly $5.5 million revenue shortfall in the current fiscal year due to the global pandemic that has caused an economic retraction, and dealing with that shortfall is likely to mean the district needs to cut services and personnel, Superintendent Anibal Soler Jr. informed school board members on Monday night.

Soler told the board that state aid has been cut by 20 percent, or $425,000, so far. The state says it is "withholding" the funds but there's no guarantee the funds will be backfilled, nor that there won't be more "withholding" during the remainder of the year.

The state is facing a $16 billion budget shortfall and the deficit over the next four years is expected to grow to $66 billion.

That doesn't bode well for the future of school funding, Soler said.

The superintedent said he was trying to present the board and the community with a realistic picture of the situation the district finds itself in through no fault of its own.

"If we don’t sound the alarm now and it gets sounded for us, we may be seen as not being as transparent as we can," Soler said.

While a lot of people suggest cutting things like supplies and materials, that's only 2 percent of the school district's budget. The biggest portion of the budget goes to payroll and benefits -- about 70 percent, so if it becomes necessary to cut spending, that will be the area where the district can make up much of the projected shortfall.

"At $5.4 million, you start doing the math and that's a significant number of services or employees we have to change," Soler said.

The total district budget is $51,470,726 and is supported by $27,477,066.

The unknowns at this point is: Whether there will be a round of 20-percent withholding in August and December and whether Congress will at some point approve a stimulus package that includes funding for schools.

Soler said state education officials are leaning heavily on the idea of waiting to see what happens after the election.

If the cuts turn out to be permanent, Soler outline several possible responses:

  • Cut teacher aides to four days a week for a savings of $301,210;
  • Cut custodial work to four days a week for a savings of $246,126;
  • Go to 100-percent remote learning to cut transportation costs by $576,000;
  • Eliminate activities such as music for a savings of $143,551;
  • Cutting athletics could save $284,089;
  • Increasing class size to 28 pupils per teacher, the maximum allowed by the current union contract, could save $630,000;
  • Eliminating non-mandated staff, such as teachers for elective courses, non-graduation requirement courses, extra librarians, some tutors and counselors, an administrator, and some aides, could lead to another $3 million in savings;
  • Eliminating the school resource officer would save $54,000.

What to cut and how much is a matter of priorities and a balancing act, Soler said. For example, eliminating transportation would mean a cut in state aid for transportation in future years.

Also on the table for discussion, Soler said, is a dramatic tax increase. He took notice of the possible 89-percent property tax increase in the Town of Batavia as an example of the tough budget choices the pandemic is forcing on local governments.

"Obviously, I'm not saying that's our approach but we're probably not going to be able to come out of this with no tax increase," Soler said. "It's tough because they're (property owners) are also struggling with these economic conditions."

Board Member Shawna Murphy wondered out loud why the idea of a tax increase was such a heinous idea. She suggested most people in Batavia could handle a tax increase.

Another board member spoke up (it was hard to identify the speaker on the livestream of the meeting) and said many older residents have already put their children and their grandchildren through school and now live on a fixed income. She was hesitant to burden them with a tax increase.

"I have more concern for the older property owner," she said. "Their home is the last thing they're clinging to and we're asking them to make quite a sacrifice when they have no children in the system."

The district does have about $1.75 million in reserves but that money will run out quickly if other action isn't taken, Soler said.

The district will know much more about its financial situation by the Nov. 23 board meeting, Soler said. Until then, he said, the district needs to remain "stay the course and remain Batavia Strong" and study its options.

On another budget item, the board unanimously approved an amendment to the superintendent's contract that granted Soler a $4,800 annual raise, bringing his compensation to $164,800 per year. The board did not discuss the salary increase prior to the vote.

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