Greater Johnstown School District board of education continues budget talks

Greater Johnstown School District Board of Education members discuss the defeated proposed budget during their business meeting Thursday. (The Leader-Herald/Briana O’Hara)

JOHNSTOWN — Following the defeat of the Greater Johnstown School District’s proposed $35.8 million budget — with a 4.9 tax levy increase — the Board of Education began the task of discussing what comes next for the budget at their business meeting Thursday.

The budget needed a 60 percent super majority to pass at Tuesday’s vote, but only 51 percent voted in favor of the proposed budget.

Since the budget did not pass, voters will have to vote on a proposed budget again on June 19.

“I don’t know that everyone understands how tight our budget is,” said board member Susanne Fitzgerald. “It’s not a frustration with the voters, it’s a frustration with the situation that we’re in.”

BOE members all agreed it would be “disrespectful” to send out the same proposed budget with the 4.9 percent tax levy increase. BOE members discussed bringing it down somewhere between 3.5 percent and 3.9 percent.

“Depending on where I think we might want to land, let’s say it went to 4.5 percent, that would mean we would need to cut $34,000 from our budget. If we decide to go down to 4 percent, we would have to cut about $75,000. At 3.9 [percent] we would cut about $83,000. And if we went down to 2 percent we’d cut about $240,000,” Ruthie Cook, assistant superintendent, said. “We would really have to dig in to figure out where we’d find that money.”

The board emphasized the importance of getting the proposed budget passed. If the proposed budget is declined again, a contingency budget would have to be put in place. This would mean there would be somewhere between $500,000 to $600,000 in reductions on top of the $1 million in reductions that have already been made, according to district officials.

“In terms of contingency budget, there are specific things we cannot spend if we go to contingency and one of those things is we cannot let any outside entities use our facilities,” Cook said. “For an example, the fireworks at Knox Field, if we were going to do something like that, any cost the district would [have]— like running the lights, any custodial staff, anything like that — would have to be paid up-front before we would be allowed to let anyone use it.”

All board members agreed the public should understand, and be aware, of just what the results of a contingency budget would be.

“If we have no tax increase this year, that means that we’re just that much further behind again next year as well,” Cook said.

Kathy Dougherty, president of board said when that happens, the district will never catch up.

“We’ll be cutting forever,” she added. “If you don’t use your tax levy that you’re allowed to use one year, you can use the remainder that following year, but since our calculation is negative, we can’t even use that. A zero to us is a zero forever.”

Cook said the another part of the contingency budget would mean the board would have to look at the services they offer, and anything that is a non-mandated program would have to be reviewed. The board would need to consider whether they would want to fund those programs or not. Those programs that are not mandated are kindergarten, extra curricular clubs, elementary art and music and anything else not mandated.

Cook said there has been some confusion on the capital project’s effect on the whole thing. She said the capital project affects just the tax cap calculation.

“The capital project is not the main reason that we’re in this huge budget gap,” Cook said. “[It] is operating expenses more than operating revenues.”

“I’m going to say the awful ‘M’ word — if our finances keep circling down, we’re going to have to seriously look at possibly closing more schools, merging. Your hand gets forced after so long,” Fitzgerald said.

Cook went through the results of the exit survey which 229 voters completed. She said there were 7 percent more voters this year. Cook said 2.2 percent typically vote no.

One of the questions on the survey was: “Of the factors listed below, what influenced your vote?”

Cook stated from the survey, “Of the yes votes the vast majority said I believe in investing in an education. The no votes, the highest number said the projected tax increase is unreasonable.”

In terms of what voters’ thought about the cuts made from the proposed budget, Cook said it was evenly split between “It didn’t go far enough,” “It went too far” and “It was appropriate given the financial challenges.”

The highest programs residents wanted to preserve were the variety of electives courses, music programs and class size. The lowest areas residents wanted to preserve were field trips, art and extracurriculars.

The board will meet sometime next week to further discuss the proposed budget since they need to inform the public of their decision by May 29.

By Kerry Minor

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