Administration Sets the Stage for 2014-15 School Budget Discussions

School-BudgetThis year, anyone who says they don't know what drives the school budget in Scarsdale can only blame themself. The Scarsdale School Board and district administration have made an all-out effort to offer thorough analyses of key areas of the upcoming 2014-15 school budget, even before the first budget is presented next week. They provided presentations on the elementary, middle school and high school programs, technology, staffing, transportation, staff development and special education, anticipating and answering questions, months before they could be posed by the community.

These presentations were televised on the Scarsdale Schools channel and also available in the video on demand section of the Scarsdale Schools website. So if you have questions, you only need to look as far as your home computer.

This month, Assistant School Superintendent Linda Purvis delivered "TED style" talks about the district's "modified zero-based budget" approach as well as an explanation of fund balances and reserves, at two meetings, one at night and one during the day.

Taking their cue from issues that arose last year when the first budget was defeated, the administration provided details and the rationale behind each of these budget cost drivers. In a discussion about district staffing, Linda Purvis warned potential critics saying, "there are sound reasons for all the positions listed in the budget. We have material on each and analyze all budget items."

Though some in the community have urged the Board to ignore the tax cap and present the best budget for the Scarsdale Schools, for now, the district does have this number on their radar. According to Purvis, the nominal tax cap, as determined by the Consumer Price Index, is 1.46%. However, given real property growth from development in Scarsdale, this figure can be adjusted upwards by 1.59%, bringing the cap to 3.05% before allowances for capital improvements, debt service and purchases such as school buses. Though this increase seems generous, the district has less available reserves to add to the budget and mandated costs continue to rise. For instance, the district's contribution to the NYS Teacher and Employee Retirement System will go up 7.5% this year.

Other items up for discussion are the number of teachers to be added to accommodate an anticipated enrollment increase of 57 students district-wide and to decrease the size of some over-populated classes in the elementary school and high school. The district would like to add 5 elementary school teachers to keep class sizes at 22 students for grades K-3 and 24 students in grades 4 and 5. At the high school, 4 new teachers are needed to reduce class sizes in math, science and social studies, where currently 20% of classes have more than 25 students. An additional gym teacher has also been requested. A proposal to introduce the Chromebooks program, currently offered to fifth graders, to the fourth grade as well, would require a new technology staffer to support the program.

Though no formal proposal has been made, at one meeting Purvis mentioned that the district will need to spend about $500,000 to renovate the science labs. The increased in enrollment in the current ninth grade will require more lab space for chemistry and physics classes.

What else? The district's $1.5 million health reserve fund, set up to shield them against large claims from their self-insured health plan, was found to be out of compliance by auditors. Therefore, $750,000, or half of the fund, was moved to undesignated reserves and the other $750,000 was put into the general fund. This $1,500,000 will help to reduce the tax increase for the coming year but will leave a hole in the future.

Speaking of the future, one of the discussion points at these meetings has focused on dwindling reserves and moneywhat that will mean for the district in subsequent years. Purvis explained that the total fund balance has been reduced from $18 mm in 2010 (14% of the budget) to a projected $8 million in 2014-15 (5% of the budget). By law, the district is allowed to hold 4% of the budget in a reserve fund, but this year the district was operating with an undesignated reserve of only 3.5% before the transfer of $750,000 in health care reserves. In 2008-2012 the district included about $6 million in reserves in each of the subsequent year's budget, but this was reduced to $4.3 million in 2012-13 and is estimated to be only $2.2 million for 2014-15. Purvis projects that we will exhaust these reserves in the next three to five years, and without these funds, the Board will be forced to either ask for bigger tax increases or cut the educational program to balance the budget.

At the budget forum, parents brought up some of the staff that had been cut in previous years, including a librarian at the Middle School and the reduction of helping teachers from 6 to 2 positions. Also on their minds was the minimal investment that the school has made in their facilities in recent years, spending just .7% of the budget on plant maintenance and improvement.

When asked if any of these positions would be restored or funds increased, Dr. McGill replied, "Given last year's experience I am being cautious. We will do our best to propose the right budget that preserves and protects the Scarsdale's a delicate balancing act. We haven't done what we ideally would have done."

Purvis hinted that the current working document for the budget proposal is now $600,000 above the tax cap and is a work in progress. Decisions are still being made and it is not clear whether the administration will propose a budget that comes in above or below the cap. They will present their budget to the Board on Friday January 31 and unveil it to the community on Monday night February 3 at 6:30 pm.