Johnstown school board takes questions from taxpayers on budget

PHOTOGRAPHER:

Greater Johnstown School District Superintendent William Crankshaw, right, speaks with members of the public during Johnstown’s budget hearing Tuesday night.

JOHNSTOWN – After a 50-minute budget presentation detailing the Greater Johnstown School District’s $41 million 20022-23 budget proposal and its 4.8% tax levy increase, the district’s school board fielded questions from taxpayers Tuesday night.

The district’s budget public hearing was attended by six people. When they were given a chance to speak the topics they wanted answers about ranged from the nitty gritty details of the school’s HFM BOCES transportation contract to the more broadly philosophical question of who should have to pay school taxes and why.

Board newcomer Arthur Schrum Jr. prompted the first question from a woman who identified herself as Mary Lou Miller.

“Did you say you had a statement to read?” Schrum asked.

“Pardon?” Miller, who had difficulty hearing the board responded.

“Did you say you have a statement to read?” Schrum asked again.

“I’m sorry, I can’t …,” Miller said.

“Read your statement!” Schrum yelled.

Miller did not have a statement to read, but she did have things to say. She asked about declining enrollment at the school district.

Crankshaw said Johnstown’s enrollment is about 1,500 students, and has been on the decline since 1978.

“Really? That’s a lot of years, and we haven’t gotten rid of any teachers or nothin’ has dropped?” she asked. “We don’t need all the people that we needed when it was all up?”

Cranskshaw recounted the history of how GJSD had “right-sized”, cutting approximately 22% of its personnel after the 2019-20 school year after a $4.3 million budget deficit was revealed to the public.

The 2018-19 school budget process allowed for a 14.6 percent tax levy increase with only a majority vote due to an unusually high tax cap for Johnstown that year. Starting with the 2019-20 budget district officials had projected Johnstown would need three budget cycles of approximately 14 percent tax levy increases to close the district’s annual budget deficit.

But since then, after cutting personnel, closing an elementary school and converting the Knox Junior High School into mostly a district office building and after the receipt of increased state and federal aide due to the coronavirus pandemic, GJSD’s rojections for the 2022-23 school year have shown the district’s finance’s are now strong enough to allow for smaller incremental tax levy increases, at least for now.

Miller asked whether it was only property owners who pay taxes, and cast doubt on the idea that the rent collected by landlords is used to pay property taxes.

Another district resident at the hearing, Michael DeHart, a renter, took issue with Miller’s views on renters.

“A landlord’s property tax assessment is based on all of the properties that he owns, and he takes those costs and he spreads them out to his tenants,” DeHart said. “So, we don’t pay the same amount as the homeowner because we don’t have the privilege of owning the home, but we still share the cost.”

Schrum, sitting behind the school board table, offered some commentary on renters, supporting Miller’s view.

“Per state regulations, those rental increases are limited (for the) landlords,” Schrum said.

Miller explained her bottom line objection to paying school taxes.

“I’m 86-years-old, and I haven’t had a child in school for, what, 25 or 30 years,” she said. “Probably when they set up this code years and years ago nobody lived to 70 and 80 and 90. Why at 86 am I still paying school taxes?”

School board member Beverly Alves offered an answer.

“Because somebody paid for our education,” Alves said.

“I can’t hear her,” Miller said.

“Because somebody paid for our education,” Alves repeated.

“I still can’t hear her,” Miller said. “Don’t you think we should change some of these codes as we go along? I’m sorry you have to rent, and can’t afford a home, but … the students are in school whether their (parents) are property owners or non-property owners they should pay part of the bill just like us taxpayers do. So, all of these people are getting free-rides, and (their children) aren’t even coming to school.”

Schrum again assisted Miller’s point explaining that she was complaining about chronic absenteeism.

GJSD’s 2020-21 New York state Report Card showed that among Johnstown’s Elementary/Middle school students 16.7% were chronically absent with 10 or more absences — the lowest percentage of any student cohort among the elementary schools, middle schools and high schools in Fulton County.

Johnstown High School, however, for 2020-21 had 20% chronic absenteeism, which was the 6th highest among the 11 student cohorts across the five school districts in Fulton County.

Another district resident who said his name was Jeff Cornell focused his comments mainly on Johnstown’s one-page transportation contract with HFM-BOCES, which he said was insufficient for protecting the district from scenarios such as when HFM BOCES was forced to shut down busing due to too many bus drivers absent from COVID-19.

“I’d like to see some kind of penalty in there when BOCES says ‘well, we didn’t hire enough school bus drivers so for two weeks you have to bring your kids to school’ — we had that happen this year,” Cornell said.

Cornell also questioned why Johnstown is asking voters to approve spending $344,721 from the District’s 2015 Capital Bus Purchase Reserve Fund to authorize the purchase of three 66-passenger buses, at a cost not to exceed $381,000, and one van or suburban vehicle, at a cost not to exceed $70,000. The district budget will pay for costs above and beyond the $344,72, which GJSD officials have said will be offset by transportation aid that the District receives.

“No where on (this one page contract) does it state Johnstown shall have to provide buses,” Cornell said. “Why are we buying buses for the largest (school district entity) in our county when we don’t’ contractually have to? Are we doing it out of the goodness of our hearts?”

Assistant Superintendent Alicia Koster explained that state regulations require school district’s to purchase their own buses even when they contract with BOCES for drivers. Koster told Cornell that if the district were to bid out to a private bus provider like Browns then Johnstown would not be required to purchase the buses.

GJSD School Board Vice President David D’Amore said Cornell’s point about taking a closer look at the language in the HFM BOCES contract is a good idea, but he cautioned that the contract language is boilerplate and probably could not provide much recompense for unexpected bussing shutdowns due to a lack of personnel.

During his budget presentation Crankshaw explained that Johnstown’s overall spending was going up 2.63%, the largest portion of which is due to $1.3 million in increased personnel costs, which includes $888,798 in salary increases, $78,282 in district transportation costs and a $330,638 increase in employee benefit costs.

Crankshaw said the 2022-23 school budget includes $3.3 million in spending from the district’s reserve of unspent tax revenues. He said he’s uncertain how much the district will have left in fund balance at the end of this school year, but in June of 2021 Johnstown had $3.7 million in un-assigned fund balance, after spending $2.5 million of it to balance the 2020-21 budget.

Crankshaw said school should not over-use their reserves to balance their budgets. He said in the past Johnstown had too many zero-percent tax levy increases and that was a contributor to the $4.8 million deficit Johnstown has spent years struggling to fill.

The school budget vote is set for May 17 from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.

By Jason Subik

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