Budget focus groups and Q & A session provides the opportunity for the community to give feedback and ask questions
The Guilderland Central School District recently held budget events to give the Guilderland school community the opportunity to provide their feedback and to have their questions answered regarding the 2023-24 spending plan.
Budget focus groups
On Monday, Mar. 20, two virtual focus groups were held to gather input regarding the draft 2023-24 general operating budget. The purpose of these forums was to collect thoughts and opinions which could be shared directly with the board of education and the district administration. During the conversations, the participants were asked if the needs of their children’s school(s) were met, were there items not included in the budget they would like to see funded and other general observations about the spending plan. The notes from the budget focus groups can be read here.
Budget Q & A session
On Tuesday, Mar. 21, the district held a board of education meeting and budget question and answer session. This gave the board members and the Guilderland community the opportunity to ask questions about the 2023-24 spending plan. The in-person audience was welcome to ask questions; community members were invited to submit questions via email.
After a brief overview of the budget by Assistant Superintendent for Business Dr. Andrew Van Alstyne, the board posed the following questions:
Q: Next year, a portion of the grant funds for the 2023-24 school year is being used for social emotional support; how does that important aspect of the budget transition from grant funding for the 2023-24 school year to the general operating budget for the 2024-25 school year?
A: The district has purposely allocated the majority of the federal grant funds it has received to non-recurring items since this grant funding stream is temporary and finite, meaning it will end. However, one of the purposes stipulated for these funds was the response to and support of the social and emotional wellbeing of students following the pandemic. With this purpose in mind, the district has allocated a portion of the grant funds to staff to support this objective, thereby satisfying the grant requirements.
The federal grant funds provide the district with the flexibility to address the middle school class size reduction in the 2023-24 budget. While targeting this initiative, the district continues to balance the preservation of services and programs and the effective maximization of federal funds. In coming years administrators will adjust what will be brought into the general operating budget from the federal funds.
As always, administrators are fully and effectively using the federal grant funds according to their appropriate guidelines, while ensuring how the funds are used brings value to the district and its students.
It is important to note that, with the expiration of federal grant funds beginning in fall 2023, school leaders have carefully planned for the long-term to avoid funding gaps in future years.
Q: What does the district do to replenish cash reserves after an emergency situation may diminish these funds?
A: Paying tax certiorari claims and the legal expenses associated with them is the biggest disruption to the 2023-24 general operating budget. GCSD must wait until these claims are settled to determine the amount that must be paid. Then the district will have the ability to bond for that amount, which will provide the leeway to recoup what was spent from reserves. If the claims are settled favorably for the district, there will be additional options.
Q: There is a big increase in the cost of health benefits for the 2023-24 school year; did the district know to expect this increase?
A: GCSD is part of a healthcare consortium which historically has done a very good job of keeping the cost of benefits low. Recently these costs are increasing nationwide. The district’s health insurance rates are based on utilization; during the pandemic, when people did not visit doctors as frequently, health insurance expenses declined. Now that restrictions have been lifted, these costs have rebounded, driving up the price of health insurance premiums. The increases for the 2023-24 school year are part of an equalization of the price of health insurance rates and was anticipated by the district business official.
Q: Does GCSD have room in the budget to add more teaching assistants?
A: Teaching assistants have a significant impact in the classroom and the district supports increasing the number of teaching assistants. Currently, GCSD has many open teaching assistant positions and is actively seeking to fill these spots. There is money allocated in the 2023-24 proposed budget to hire additional teaching assistants.
Q: What kind of impact has the school resource officer had at Farnsworth Middle School?
A: On January 3 2023, Guilderland Police Officer Kris Scarano joined Farnsworth Middle School as the School Resource Officer. Principal Michael Laster described Officer Scarano as an additional staff member who is available and able to support FMS students. In terms of Officer Scarano’s impact, Principal Laster pointed to the relationship building that has taken place. In a short period of time Officer Scarano has been very effective at forming relationships with students, which is particularly important at the middle school level. Because of these relationships, Officer Scarano has already been able to assist students who are in need of additional support.
In addition, an eighth grade FMS student was able to job shadow with Officer Scarano. This experience provided the student with an exciting look at a day in the life of a school resource officer, one the student called the highlight of the year!
Q: Can you explain the proposed increase of monitors at Guilderland High School?
A: The budget for the proposed 2023-24 school year allocated additional hours to increase monitor coverage at GHS. Some of these positions will move from part-time to full-time. This will provide additional coverage so that the cafeterias and hallways can be sufficiently monitored during the school day, specifically during lunch periods.
Q: Can you clarify the increase for principal and interest payments?
A: Currently the district is managing two capital projects: one that was approved by Guilderland voters in 2019 and one that was approved in 2021. In managing the two capital projects, the district has taken on more borrowing, which has led to increased principal and interest payments. The increase in borrowing is part of the long-range financial plan for managing these projects. Going forward, these payments will be eligible for aid from New York state so the district will be reimbursed for a significant portion of these payments.
Q: Please provide details regarding the DEI teacher on special assignment?
A: To further support and expand on DEI work, administration has proposed a teacher on DEI special assignment. This teacher would assist DEI Director Matthew Pinchinat with a variety of tasks, such as providing professional development, curriculum development, connecting with parents, vetting resources and conducting classroom lessons. For the 2023-24 school year, this position will be experimental and will be funded through federal grant dollars. Should the district decide this position is effective and productive in terms of meeting DEI goals and objectives, the future funding source will be determined.
General budget FAQs
Q: What is the difference between the tax levy and tax rate?
A: The tax levy is the total amount of money a school district raises in taxes each year from all property owners in the district.
The tax rate is the amount paid for each $1,000 of taxable assessed value of property. The rate is used to calculate each individual property tax bill. In districts that cover just one municipality, the tax rate is figured by dividing the tax levy by the total taxable assessed value of the district, then multiplying by 1,000. This gives you the tax rate, which is expressed as the amount per $1,000 of assessed property value.
In districts that encompass more than one municipality, equalization rates are factored in as well to assign a fair share of the tax levy among the municipalities and to the taxpayers within them.
Q: What is the equalization rate?
A: In New York state, each municipality determines its own level of property assessment. This means that property in different municipalities could be assessed less than, higher than or at actual full market value (i.e., the price for which a property could be sold). In order to distribute school district or county taxes evenly among multiple municipalities, the level of assessment for each of those municipalities must be equalized to full market value. To do this, the state uses an equalization rate:
Total assessed value of the municipality ÷ Total market value of the municipality = Equalization rate
Once the full market value of each municipality is established, the school district or county can determine the amount of taxes that should be collected from each municipality.
Click here to find more information about equalization rates and local assessment rolls.
Q: What is the tax levy limit, or tax cap?
A: The tax levy limit is the highest allowable tax levy (before exemptions) that a school district can propose as part of its annual budget with the support of a simple majority of voters (50% + 1) required for approval. In other words, if a district proposes a tax levy increase at or below the limit, a simple majority of voters is needed for the budget to pass. Any proposed tax levy amount above this limit would require the support of a 60% supermajority of voters to be approved. The tax levy limit sets a threshold requiring districts to obtain a higher level of community support for a proposed tax levy above a certain amount.
Q: How would the proposed budget affect my taxes? Is it within the cap?
A: The proposed tax levy increase of 2.77 percent is within the tax levy limit that is calculated for 2023-24 through a prescribed state formula. As a result, the budget requires the support of a simple majority (50% + 1) of voters to be approved based on the state’s tax cap law.
Residents’ tax bills are determined by several other factors that are out of the district’s control, including assessment levels, which vary by municipality, and equalization rates, which are set by the New York State Office of Real Property Services.
While final tax rates cannot be determined until the summer when final assessments and equalization rates become available, we estimate a 2.42% increase in school tax rates. This will vary by town based on equalization rates.
Q: What happens if the budget is defeated?
A: Under New York state law, if the school budget is defeated, the board of education typically has two options: hold another vote in June on either the same budget or a revised budget, or adopt a contingent budget without a second vote. If residents defeat the proposed budget during a second vote, the board must adopt a contingent budget.
Q: What is a contingent budget?
A: State law mandates that under a contingent budget, a school district must adopt a budget with no tax levy increase and eliminate all non-contingent expenses, such as certain student supplies, certain equipment purchases and community use of school facilities that results in a district expense. (In other words, the district would likely need to charge fees for any community use of buildings and grounds.) The administrative budget would also be subject to certain restrictions.
Q: What would be cut under a contingent budget for 2023-24?
A: If the Guilderland Central School District adopts a contingent budget for 2023-24, the district would have to cut $2,377,292 from school programs, staffing and equipment.
Q: What is a “fund balance” and how does it help offset what I pay in school taxes?
A: Fund balance is created when there is money left at the end of the fiscal year, either by the district spending less than budgeted or receiving more revenue than anticipated. An “unassigned” fund balance provides monies that can be used for a variety of needs, unlike reserve funds, which are targeted for specific purposes. While recommendations from within the financial industry often suggest that an organization should have an unassigned fund balance of between 5% and 10% of their total annual budget, New York state limits school districts’ fund balances to 4%.
Q: What is the state’s School Tax Relief, or STAR, Program?
A: New York State’s School Tax Relief Program, or STAR, provides partial school property tax savings to eligible homeowners. Most New Yorkers who own and live in their homes are eligible for STAR savings on their primary residences. Because the STAR program is not a district program, taxpayers STAR savings are not factored into a school budget.
More information about STAR can be found here.
Q: Why do salaries and benefits comprise so much of the budget?
A: It takes many people to create and maintain a safe and productive learning environment for nearly 5,000 children in our seven schools. Employees teach, transport, coach and care for the community’s children. They clean buildings, cook meals, maintain playing fields, order supplies, comply with regulations and make decisions so that schools run effectively and efficiently and more. The district has nearly 954 employees, including many part-time staff members. Every year, approximately 75.5 percent of the district’s budget goes to pay salaries and benefits.
Notes from Mar. 20 budget focus groups
Question #1: Do you perceive the budget for the 2023-24 school year to meet the needs of your school?
- A participant agrees with reducing class sizes and is in favor of the items in the budget to support this at FMS. Did not see similar changes for GES in the budget and would like to see reduction of class sizes there.
- A participant agrees with reducing class sizes at FMS; feels positive moves are being made at middle school level and high school level.
- Is concerned about proactively addressing issues at elementary school level. Doesn’t see a lot of movement there.
- Recalls seeing a chart projecting elementary class sizes that are 1-2 students smaller than previous, recalls conversations about new staff, etc.
- Concerned about having heard feedback that younger students are struggling emotionally from pandemic, which is causing issues.
- Concerned that if this is a trend, the district might not be addressing it until students are older; worried these issues might escalate and become bigger as students age.
- Feels that teachers and aides at younger grades are fantastic but are overwhelmed. Wants to see if the district is addressing what is happening at younger levels.
- A participant would like to see an increase in social worker or counselors at elementary level addressing behaviors. Working with children in small groups/group work dealing with social-emotional issues. Feels that there should be more problem solving.
- This question was raised: reducing class size is a priority at FMS. Is that in discussion for the high school? Is there a need for class size reduction at high school?
- How much of the budget is going towards the high school?
- This question was raised that rather than paying the town for a school resource officer, could Guilderland have its own security staff that could rotate through the buildings, especially at high school?
- A participant likes that the district is reducing class size at FMS. There’s a definite need for that. Smaller class sizes will facilitate connections and make it easier for teachers who work with those who are struggling.
- Want to make sure that the district, when considering eighth grade, is supporting all students and increasing availability for higher level classes at FMS.
- Participant pointed out that there is more co-teaching and teaching assistants and increased security at GHS and agrees with this move by the district.
- The question was raised about what a monitor’s role is at GHS and it was explained that monitors serve as additional personnel to assist in the hallways.
- Positivity Project and its messages are a very important program but a participant would like to see more consistency in how it’s taught; perhaps a standard. Feels that some classes/teachers are very engaged while others are less so; students may associate it negatively.
- Appreciates expanding access to sports; feels student involvement is very important.
- Would like to see more options for sixth grade students so they have an additional outlet – possibly intramural sports.
- In terms of meeting the needs of athletes, would like to see the district redo the weight room at GHS to accommodate athletes. It’s very small and outdated and would like to see it updated and expanded. Other participants agreed with this comment.
- Would like to see some changes and updates to buildings, especially FMS. Feels that outdated buildings do not inspire students to work to their potential or to work harder. Also feels that this would inspire students to take care of their schools. Referred to other schools that have undergone improvements, such as Albany High School.
Question #2: After reviewing the budget, are there items that were not included that you would like to see funded?
- More social-emotional support for youngest students.
- A participant thinks a push for hiring TAs at the primary elementary level to assist younger grade teachers for support would be helpful.
- Feels district should pay substitute teachers more to entice them to come to GCSD day-to-day and stay in a particular building (consistency).
- More building-wide substitute teachers that students will become familiar with.
- TAs should be paid more.
- Acknowledge district is trying to bring in more TAs but would like to see more attention paid to kindergarten level; is concerned that when these students are older.
- If cost were not an issue, would like to see assistant principals added back at elementary level. This was the case in the past but these positions were cut. The population has increased, would like to see these positions brought back, at least in bigger elementary schools such as WES and GES.
- Would like the district to start building in more digital citizenship, cyber security/safety, safety online for students. Believes this is something students need to hear.
Question #3: Is there anything the district has not thought about in planning for next year’s budget?
- Reducing class size is important, hoping it spills over to elementary level as well.
- Parent of FMS student thinks class size and safety are concerns; board and district seem to be positively addressing these concerns.
- Participants were appreciative for the opportunity to share insights.
- A question was asked if the general operating budget includes the Foundation Aid from New York State, which it does.
- Has the district given consideration to having a social worker and a counselor in each elementary school? Based on concerns people have, would they consider staffing the elementary schools with both, much like the middle and high schools have?
- Would like to see the JV girls basketball team get new uniforms. Two participants feel that they are not well represented when they arrive at games; new uniforms would upgrade their presence; students would feel prouder with new uniforms.
- A participant asked if there is a class within the high school that could fix or paint certain things in the school? This would teach life skills; give students pride; accountability and expectations. When a place looks nice, participant feels students would keep it nice and take pride in their school. Participant offers the suggestion that students might be able to earn community service.
- Safety is paramount to someone feeling comfortable/learning and wanting to be there 6-7 hours a day, especially at GHS. Whatever the district can do to make this a reality for students to feel more comfortable.
- Likes the idea of district having its own security detail. Feels GCSD is big enough to make this happen. Would bring continuity to all of the schools, especially GHS. Thinks this is a really good idea.
- A participant is very glad that there is a stipend for co-coaches for cross country and track, because they serve such a large number of students and need the support.