Board of Ed seeks to slash $70K from budget

In its efforts to draft a budget for the 2021-22 school year that doesn’t go above the state-imposed 2% tax cap, the Board of Education has set its sights on reducing spending by at least $70,000 before adopting a budget proposal on April 12.

For the current school year, while there were unanticipated expenses to comply with COVID-19 costs, spending in other areas was less than anticipated because the pandemic resulted in cancellation of various activities.

Still, there were more expenses for special air filters in each school room, increased maintenance costs to keep the building safe, installation of more hand washing stations and additional computer equipment for virtual learning sessions.

The next budget workshop is slated for Monday at 6 p.m., to be followed by the regular monthly Board of Education meeting.

A second objective that preceded the yearly budget process is bringing the district into compliance with a critical April 2020 report from the Office of the New York State Comptroller that pinpointed four key recommendations that should be met:

• Reduce the surplus fund balance to comply with the statutory limit and district policy. That limits the unassigned fund balance to not more than 4% of the overall budget for each year. Surplus money in the unassigned fund balance could be used to reduce district property taxes; fund one-time expenditures; create funding reserve accounts that are properly established; and/or paying off debt, according to the Comptroller’s report.

• Adopt budgets containing reasonable estimates of appropriations that discontinue appropriating fund balance not needed to pay for operations.

• Review the unemployment insurance reserve to determine whether the balance is necessary and adopt a resolution that establishes the employee benefit accrued liability reserve.

• Create a Corrective Action Plan (CAP) in response to external audit reports that indicate who will implement recommendations and identify when each is expected to be implemented.

Islander Bob Fredericks, who is a former school superintendent, wants to know about progress in meeting the comptroller’s demands for change. Mr. Fredericks maintains the district should not need any tax hike to support the 2021-22 budget because costs could be met using money that was in the district’s unassigned fund balance. He said there should be enough money from the past to bring taxes down to zero.

In response to the comptroller’s report, Superintendent Brian C. Doelger, Ed.D. said at last week’s budget workshop that the district has created reserve accounts instead of parking money in the unassigned fund balance account, which was the previous practice. One such reserve account is dedicated to repairs to upgrade the district’s septic system.

That project is expected to begin this summer. Other specific reserve funds allowed by the state have also been created. The superintendent has business office staffers compiling a list of those along with additional information to update actions taken to meet the terms outlined in the comptroller’s  report.

“I have reorganized the business office and created a better budgeting process that will result in lower appropriated fund balances and more accurate projections of budget estimations,” Mr. Doelger said in a letter he sent last April to Chief Examiner Ira McCracken in the Office of the State Comptroller.

He also said he has taken steps to have the Board of Education formally adopt a plan for the employee benefit accrued liability reserve and promised to review its balance to ensure it doesn’t become unreasonable.

In working with staff to draft the 2021-22 budget, he said he created “a vigorous internal review process.”

The superintendent defended past budgeting practices, explaining that in view of the district’s small size, “one high-cost [special education] student has the potential to throw our budget into financial disarray. The district has traditionally taken the position to budget for contingencies, some of which may not materialize,” he said. “I am hopeful that our new approach to budgeting will help cure these problems over the long term,” Mr. Doelger said.

The comptroller’s report noted several turnovers in business managers, which  the superintendent said has made it difficult to create and implement long-term financial plans and to monitor corrective actions through the years. Following the resignation of the last business manager, Linda Haas, the Board of Education opted to hire a firm to provide guidance on financial issues.

Several questions about the comptroller’s report were submitted to Mr. Doelger by way of updating progress on the goals promised last April. The business staff is working on an updated status report expected to be available within days, the superintendent said.