CHATHAM–The Board of Education learned last week that they won’t have much to work with, as district Business Administrator Michael Chudy presented the district’s tax levy increase limit for next school year: 0.66%. The board also heard a proposal for a pre-K program and discussed how the state Open Meetings Law applies to its committees.
The tax levy limit, though more commonly referred to as the “2% tax cap,” is calculated each year using an eight-part formula under the state’s property tax cap law signed in 2011. Chatham’s 0.66% increase limit means the total allowable tax levy this year is $20,814,223. Last year’s tax levy increase cap was 4.34%.
This means that if the Chatham school board proposes a tax levy increase this year with no more than a 0.66% increase in spending, the measure would pass if it receives the approval of a simple majority of voters who come to the polls during the annual budget vote May 20. But if the board proposes a tax levy that exceeds this year’s cap, it would take a supermajority (more than 60%) of voters to pass the budget.
Mr. Chudy said that while the tax cap this year is “extremely low,” the retirement of five teachers this year will provide enough savings to help keep it balanced.
Schools Superintendent Cheryl Nuciforo told the board that the low tax cap creates a challenge, and that the district is fortunate to have the savings from the retirements. But she warned that the district’s financial position might get more difficult in the future.
“We’re getting to the point where we’re running out of places to go without getting into program [cuts]. We’re not going to have five retirements next year,” she said. “These are tough financial times, and we’ve been very fortunate.”
Last week, Mr. Chudy also presented the instruction and library portions of the draft budget following a presentation at the previous meeting of the administrative support and operations/maintenance budget proposals. The administration is proposing an instruction budget increase of 1.04%. The five retirements will yield a savings of almost $152,000 but due to placement of a number of students in BOCES programs and private schools for special education, that line will increase by over $195,000, Mr. Chudy said.
There would be a 1.9% increase in the technology budget. Network system engineer Giles Felton discussed the savings he helped realize through new software, contract negotiations and equipment replacement plan.
The transfer of funds to the Chatham Public Library is projected to be $364,447, an increase of $17,941. Mr. Chudy said the increases mostly involve computer replacements and employee health insurance. Some library costs were offset by a savings of $1,200 for electricity.
The board went on record in opposition to the state’s Gap Elimination Adjustment (GEA), which began in 2009 and now reduces state aid to each school district to help the state fill its budget deficit. The GEA for Chatham would mean a loss to the district of $640,000 in operating aid. So last week the board adopted a resolution calling upon the state Legislature to “immediately exempt state aid for education from the calculation of the Gap Elimination Adjustment.”
Jean Scheriff, director of data assessment and special programs, and Elementary School Principal Kristen Reno made a proposal to the board for a pre-K program. The class would start in September and have 15 or fewer children for a full-day program. Ms. Scheriff said that the school’s current kindergarten classes have students from 12 different private preschools and 5 different publicly funded preschool programs.
But about 25% of the children had no pre-schooling, and these students in general are well behind the others in terms of kindergarten readiness, she said. These are the children the proposed program would target.
“Many of those kids are coming to us unprepared,” said Ms. Scheriff. “We are proposing one small preschool program that is district funded that will target the un-served population.”
Ms. Reno said it would not cost the district any extra funding for staff. She said she does not anticipate a need for all five of the current Kindergarten teachers next year due to declining enrollment, and one of those teachers could take the pre-K class, she said.
Ms. Scheriff said that Chatham does not qualify for any state or federal funding for pre-K programming, including universal pre-kindergarten (UPK). But she said this could be a good thing, since the district would not be held to limitations tied to the funding. For example, she said, with a grant for UPK, Chatham would not be able to target the “un-served” population, but would be required to offer the program to the entire population through a lottery. She said this would also put the school in competition with the dozen private preschools already serving a great portion of the district’s children. It would also require the district to offer two half-day programs each with 17-20 students.
“That is not a need in our district,” she said. “By funding it locally, we would also not be adding any new teachers to our budget.”
Also at the February 25 meeting, the board discussed the open-meetings law with regard to committees appointed by the board and by the superintendent. During the January board meeting, district resident David Levow told the board of his concerns after he was turned away from attending a Facilities Committee meeting. Ms. Nuciforo has said that as a superintendent’s committee, the Facilities Committee is not subject to state open-meetings laws.
Last week board member Michael Clark presented the results of his research regarding the issue, and said the way the committee meetings were handled was done according to state law. He said that the Open Meetings Law (OML) applies to committees made up solely of board members or that consist of board members and an equal or lesser number of district employees. Committees are also subject to the OML if the committee has board members and conducts business. He said the Facilities Committee is an advisory committee that only makes recommendations to the board, therefore not subject to OML. But if five or more board members were to participate in a committee meeting, it would create a quorum of the board and would be subject to the OML.
Ms. Nuciforo said the board is careful to prevent that from happening.
Board President Melony Spock asked if board members think there is a perception problem in regard to transparency. The board discussed the idea of creating a second facilities committee that would be open to the public as a board committee meeting, but members agreed that a second facilities committee would be redundant. The board decided to send the issue to the policy committee to address how to proceed with the different types of committees.