Basically same GJSD budget up for revote

PHOTOGRAPHER:
A slide presentation is shown at the Greater Johnstown School District Board of Education budget pubic hearing Wednesday night. (The Leader-Herald/Michael Anich)

JOHNSTOWN — The Greater Johnstown School District Board of Education fielded about seven phone calls to cap off an online budget presentation and public hearing Wednesday night.

The district will conduct a revote on its previously-failed $38.9 million 2020-21 district budget from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. July 28 in the Johnstown Junior-Senior High School auditorium lobby. Masks must be worn by voters, and one will be provided by the district if you don’t have one, said Interim Superintendent Karen Geelan. District voters can still request an absentee ballot from the district.

Johnstown district voters June 9 defeated a $38.9 million budget with a 5 percent tax levy increase for the 2020-21 school year. The vote was 1,526 in favor and 1,137 opposed – a margin of 57 percent – or 3 percent less than a required 60 percent required supermajority. Because the proposed 5 percent tax levy increase exceeds the district’s state-calculated “cap,” a supermajority of 60 percent was required for passage.

Basically, the same spending plan is being presented to voters July 28.

Once again, adoption of this budget requires a tax levy increase of 5 percent. That exceeds the statutory levy increase of negative 2.02 percent for the 2020-21 school fiscal year and therefore exceeds the state tax cap and must be approved by 60 percent of the qualified voters present and voting. If the revote fails, the district must go to a contingency budget.

During Wednesday night’s online hearing, calls were mostly sympathetic to the district’s plight.

Johnstown Teachers Association President Nancy Lisicki called in to encourage voters to support the budget.

“This vote is about revitalizing this district as a hub of this community,” she said.

Lisicki said the area faces a challenging time with COVID-19, and this is not a time for a contingency budget if the July 28 revote fails.

Harry Brand of West Second Avenue stated, “I believe the fiscal health of the district is very important.” He said the public needs to understand that the final budget is a “cap of spending” and the Johnstown district is only using about $300,000 from fund balance, which is “outstanding” while doing things like fully funding sports.

Scott Miller of Collingwood Avenue felt the district has made a “clear 180 percent change” from the budget approved last year with a 14 percent levy increase.

Board member Joseph LoDestro commented that the district has “historically” underspent on its budgets.

“There is a possibility of less doom and gloom, a brighter future,’ he said. “But there’s so many variables out there.”

A Heagle Road retiree called to say that it “consistently seems my school taxes go up.” With a 5 percent tax hike, he asked: “Can you make any commitment that our graduation rate will be any better?”

Geelan said the graduation rate is probably around 82 percent, but there is room for improvement.

A Hoosac Street resident asked Geelan about the district budgeting for COVID-19.

The superintendent said the district has looked at pandemic-related costs, such as cleaning and masks.

“Yes, some of those funds are being budgeted, even for some of the unknowns,” she said.

During their budget presentation, Geelan and Assistant Superintendent Ruthie Cook noted the $492,790 that will be raised with the 5 percent levy hike.

Cook said that equates to a person with property assessed at $100,000 having an $80.65 per year increase in their taxes, or $1.55 per week. She said the $1.55 equates to a cup of coffee at McDonald’s.

The administrators pored through various budget figures they have made public for the last few months.

“State aid is basically flat,” Cook said.

By Patricia Older