Wells Central School District
WELLS – Before crunching numbers for a 2013-14 spending plan for Wells Central School District, Superintendent Tom Sincavage took a pad of paper and wrote out the district’s goals and priorities.
“Despite the economy, aid cuts and mandates beyond our control, Wells has been and is committed to preserving a sound educational program for both elementary and secondary students in southern Hamilton County,” Sincavage said.
While district leaders keep a wary eye on the future, they are cautiously encouraged as next year’s school budget is developed. The district has traditionally taken a conservative stance on its finances, carefully balancing the educational needs of students with the fiscal realities of the times.
“Our priorities are maintaining a well-rounded educational program with as many opportunities as possible; protecting the health and safety of everyone in the school, and complying with our contractual obligations along with state and federal mandates.” Sincavage said.
School districts typically start their budget process by “rolling over” the previous year’s spending plan to determine the cost of replicating all currently existing programs. Several factors contribute to what usually becomes an increase in expenditures without adding anything new to the budget.
“State-determined retirement costs and health insurance increases account for our largest jump in expenditures this year,” Sincavage said. “Teacher Retirement System contributions have increased 4.4 percentage points, large enough to impact our tax levy limit calculation.”
The revenue side of the ledger reflects savings of more than 4.0 percent from the current budget.
“We can say we had a good fiscal year,” Sincavage said, crediting careful planning and a frugal perspective on the part of everyone in the district.
LESS STATE AID?
However, the state’s Gap Elimination Adjustment remained in Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Executive Budget Proposal, cutting more than $223,000 from the district’s 2013-14 state aid amount. Overall, Wells was set to receive 7.4 percent less aid based on the governor’s proposal.
While state leaders announced a tentative agreement on a budget Wednesday, March 20, the details about any changes in state funding for schools have not yet been revealed.
In addition, the cap on any increase to the tax levy restricts the revenue school districts can collect through local property taxes. The law allows the dollar amount of pension increases that exceed 2 percentage points to be excluded when calculating a district’s tax “cap,” a circumstance that affects Wells’ tax levy limit calculation.
The maximum tax levy limit calculated for Wells for 2013-14 would represent a 3.48 percent increase, leaving a budget gap of more than $125,000.
Sincavage and the board planned to close the gap through a teacher retirement incentive, restructuring the business office, reduction of a school psychologist from three to two-and-a-half days a week, and a less-than-expected increase in health insurance premiums. Sincavage reported March 20 that as a result of new information (firm projection of health insurance costs, shared services and restructure of business office) the budget gap has been closed.
“The tax burden on the community is always in mind as we craft the budget. The spending plan we adopt will balance our school’s priorities with the needs of our taxpayers,” Sincavage said.
At this stage in the budget development process, Sincavage and the board expect to adopt a spending plan with a tax increase below the maximum allowable limit, “hopefully around 3.0 percent,” he said.
Common Core State Standards and a new teacher and principal evaluation were implemented this year in schools across New York state as part of the federal Race to the Top initiative, adding additional layers of accountability for school districts. Partly to help fulfill these requirements, Sincavage and the board are proposing the creation of a new building principal position.
The district also plans to offer a referendum in late summer on a new capital project addressing health and security needs in the school, and taking advantage of additional state building aid available for these specific needs.
“This is not a beautification project at all, but necessary upgrades to our facility and technology to ensure our school is a safe place for our students and staff,” Sincavage said. “The emphasis on school security in light of current events makes this even more of a priority for us.
“It is a project still in development with our architects, and awaiting State Education Department approval, so it cannot appear with the budget on the May ballot.”
Despite passing a budget last year that incrementally increased costs and kept the tax levy hike under the “cap,” and intending to propose a similar plan for 2013-14, challenges for Wells, like all New York schools, remain. District leaders acknowledge the time could come when secondary education [high school] may not be sustainable at Wells.
“But not right now. We are cautiously optimistic about our future,” Sincavage said. “We are fully committed to one clear priority, to provide the best possible education for all our students – right here in Wells – that the community will support,” Sincavage said.
Wells Central School residents go to the polls to vote on the 2013-14 school budget Tuesday, May 21. Voters in the district must be age 18 or older, a district resident for at least 30 days prior to the vote, and a U.S. citizen.