Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake Board of Education members are
starting their budget deliberations in a more optimistic place
than has been true for several years.
After three years of cuts to district programs and staffing, early projections for the district's 2013-14 revenues and expenses are more positive. "Thanks to an increase in state aid and the smart decisions that were made here in previous years, Burnt Hills is not feeling the crisis that it has felt for the past couple years," superintendent Patrick McGrath told Board of Education members.
"I want to stress that we only have preliminary numbers at this point. We're still at the 10,000 foot level, circling around and looking at this budget. We'll get more details and a closer look as we continue to work on the numbers over the next two months," McGrath said.
You can follow creation of the next BH-BL school budget on
the 2013-14 Budget Development webpage.
The Board of Education is starting its annual deliberations with a preliminary 2013-14 budget of $60,281,106. This figure is the first estimate of funds needed to carry all existing programs forward one year. It includes increased costs for health insurance and mandated pension contributions, but no new staffing or new programs.
Like many school districts, the biggest budget challenge for
BH-BL is the state-required increase in contributions to the
Teachers' Retirement System. Assistant superintendent Chris
Abdoo projects that BH-BL expenses could increase by as much as
$1,375,000 next year to cover this mandated cost.
Abdoo has also tentatively budgeted for an $839,000 or 12 percent increase in health insurance costs, but told board members that several efforts are underway to try to reduce this. "It's important to start with conservative projections," he said, "but there are several areas where I anticipate we can whittle down our expenses as we explore our options and as more exact data comes in."
If the state Legislature accepts all of Governor Cuomo's proposals for schools, Abdoo says that BH-BL would receive at least $687,000 more state aid next year than in the current year. He called the aid restoration excellent news, even though the district's state aid levels would still be lower than they were in 2009-10.
"We're not in a position where we will be able to restore what was cut over the past three years, but at least the bleeding has stopped," he said.
Good news for BH-BL also includes the fact that the NY State Municipal Energy Consortium (of which BH-BL is a member) has renegotiated its natural gas and electric contract at lower rates. The new contract takes advantage of historically low prices for natural gas and locks in natural gas and electricity rates until April 2015. Abdoo projects that this will save the district at least $300,000 in its 2013-14 budget.
McGrath also told board members that the preliminary analysis
of enrollment and other numbers for 2013-14 had uncovered the
fact that, should the board so choose, the district may have the
opportunity next fall to do what many parents have been
requesting -- offer full-day kindergarten for all students.
While most NY school districts have already made the transition to full-day K programs, up to now BH-BL has not had enough space in its elementary schools to accommodate a full-day program. Ninety percent of districts state-wide and ten of 13 Suburban Council districts offer full-day kindergarten.
"In the past month, we've discovered that a convergence of lower overall elementary enrollment and an especially low projected kindergarten enrollment in September 2013 means that we may be able to accommodate a full day program and even lower our costs in doing so," McGrath said. "We know that there are differences of opinion about kindergarten, but as administrators we have a responsibility to investigate this opportunity carefully and to give the community a chance to weigh in."
In its three elementary schools, BH-BL currently has 11 half-day kindergarten classes plus two full-day classes for kindergarten pupils who need extra support. Current projections are that nine full-day classes would suffice in 2013-14. Actual enrollment will not be known until kindergarten registration takes place in March. Administrators also predict that a number of district parents who currently send their children to private or parochial kindergartens in order to get a full-day program might come to BH-BL instead.
Switching to a full-day program would reduce transportation costs because the mid-day, kindergarten-only bus runs would not be needed. Additionally, the district would be eligible for one-time, state full-day kindergarten incentive aid of at least $600,000 in 2013-14, an amount that could be spread strategically over several years to offset costs, Abdoo feels.
McGrath and assistant superintendent Rick Evans stressed that although the opportunity to consider a full-day kindergarten program was discovered during their analysis of next year's numbers, the decision should not and would not be made on the basis of money.
"With today's increased expectations and all that we know about the foundational importance of early childhood learning, it's our responsibility to identify the best ways to foster the academic, social, and emotional growth of our five-year olds," said Evans. "This includes studying the pros and cons of full-day kindergarten. What is best for our kids?"
The Board of Education and McGrath have asked Evans to head up a committee of staff and parents that will study the kindergarten question and report back to them by April. A public opinion survey is planned, as well as a public forum sometime in March, so that everyone can share their opinions with the school board.
The public is also welcome to attend a series of meetings to
work on next year's budget. These include Board of Education
Finance Committee meetings on Feb. 27, March 19, and April 11 at
7:00 pm in the high school library.
Two public forums on the budget have also been scheduled on March 5 and April 9. Budget discussions need to be complete by mid-April, so that the public budget vote can take place on the third Tuesday in May (May 21 this year) as required by state law.