Gowanda School Board hears early budget presentation

GOWANDA– Last year, Gowanda Central School District was criticized for holding their first budget presentation two months before the vote in May; however, this year, the district is taking extra steps to include the public earlier in the process.

The Jan. 29 budget presentation was led by Superintendent Dr. Robert Anderson and School Business Administrator Barbara Smith, C.P.A. “We did this presentation last year in March, and some of the feedback we got was that it was a bit late in the process,” Anderson explained. “We will be putting updates on the business department web page. In April, the budget newsletter and notice will be sent out before the hearing on May 6, and voting is on May 19.”

For the first time in many years, the district included an exit poll at last year’s budget vote. “We had 251 responses,” said Anderson. “The poll included 12 reasons why people voted for the budget. The number one reason was ‘Quality of Education,’ and the number two response was ‘Multiple Reasons.'” The third and subsequent reasons were ranked as follows: Personal Experience, Change in Tax Rate, (blank), Health and Safety, Music/Art Programs, Property Value, Advance Placement Offerings, Class Size, Athletics/Extracurricular Programs and Civic Duty.

Smith began the 2020/21 budget presentation by explaining how Gowanda receives its funding. For the current school year, the district is receiving 58% of its revenue from state aid (non-building aid), 16% from real property taxes, seven percent from Native American tuition from the state, five percent from the reserves/fund balance, three percent from federal aid and approximately two percent from Erie County sales tax. The remainder of the funding consists of state and Native American building aid, for a $31,908,410 overall budget.

“We do get a lot of aid compared to other districts because we’re considered a ‘rural high-needs district,'” Smith acknowledged. “It’s designed to send more monies to the schools that need it. Schools are the only ‘municipalities’ that have our taxes voted on. Village, county and municipal taxes may go up or down, with no say from us. Because our budgets are voted on, there is a highly-regulated process for budget creating, notices, et cetera.”

Smith expressed disappointment in Gov. Cuomo’s budget, which appears to be an increase of 3.2% or $612,000 for Gowanda. “The governor’s budget is taking a lot of expense-based aid and rolling it into foundation aid, which is supposed to be our base operating aid,” Smith explained. “The problem is that now it’s inflating the foundation aid amount.”

Foundation aid is based on a complex formula including student counts, classifications and population factors such as wealth and special education. On the other hand, expense-based aid includes district expenditures that can vary significantly year to year and include transportation, building aid, BOCES aid and more. Smith explained that by rolling BOCES aid, software aid, library materials aid, textbook aid and hardware/technology aid into foundation aid for 2020-21, this creates a $54,000 deficit compared to the currently adopted budget.

“Our increase of $612,000 is definitely not the case…It’s not reflective of everything in our budget,” said Smith.

She explained that staff salaries and benefits account for approximately 71% of the budget. These costs are expected to increase by $562,961 for 2020-21 due to contract-based salary increases, anticipated health insurance increases of five percent, and Teacher’s Retirement System rates that may increase as much as 16%. According to Smith, Chautauqua Opportunities, through which Gowanda has its PreK program, has asked for $76,000, “a significant increase in their projection.” She urged school board members and district residents to lobby for more PreK funding, as the state only provides a fixed amount and does not reimburse the district for costs exceeding that amount.

Smith pointed out that the district currently has “good fund balances” which are comprised of operating surpluses over a period of time. However, Smith noted that it is important to prepare for the day when such fund balances may be depleted due to diminished state aid.

Board President Mark Nephew agreed. “When you consider in general how our students have higher needs, we are heavily reliant on state and federal aid,” he said. “We started receiving federal impact aid in 2014-15, but even though it started then, it could go away. We have to be prepared for that.”

The school tax levy has not increased since the 2017-18 school year, when it was raised 1.392%. Although there is a 2 percent property tax cap, Smith pointed out that a district can actually raise that cap under certain circumstances: “If they haven’t raised taxes over the past few years, there’s a carry over. The cap could be raised to 4.03%. It really has to be a balancing act. When you consider the property tax cap — the long-term implications of it — aid increases, or lack thereof, you need this long-term picture and long-term plan that we’ve really started to talk about.”

Nephew emphasized that the board has not discussed a four-percent increase at all and that is “not on our plate.” He added, “Even though it might be possible legally, the board has not talked about going any where close to that.”

The next budget workshop meetings of the board of education are scheduled for Wednesday, Feb. 12 and Wednesday, Feb. 26 at 6:30 p.m. in the middle school library.