P.C. school board tries to save positions with district-wide retirement incentives
April 11, 2019 at 9:31 a.m.
Even though the Port Chester School District received $883,000 more state aid than expected upon the passage of the New York State 2019-20 budget, a $1.2 million deficit still looms.
When Superintendent Dr. Edward Kliszus debuted the proposed Port Chester Schools 2019-20 budget in March, the $102.1 million spending plan utilized the entire maximum allowable tax levy increase of 5.44% and still represented a $2.9 million deficit. Now, with new state-mandated programs and additional state aid, the tax-cap compliant budget proposal realizes $103.75 million. After that $883,000 of additional state aid was discovered, the deficit shrank to $1.4 million, but Business Administrator Sandra Clohessy has been able to make adjustments and recommends using money from the fund balance to limit the shortfall to the current $1.2 million.
The Board of Education and administrators discussed finer details of the spending plan and their options to handle the deficit at a budget review meeting on Monday, Apr. 8. There, they divulged the required transportation, special education and debt service costs that are driving budget increases and deliberated potential cuts that need to be considered.
“I am concerned about ongoing budget deficits due to inadequate state funding. To that end, last week I asked administration to examine two areas that will reduce the adverse impact of inadequate funding from the state,” Board of Education President Carolee Brakewood said at the meeting. “We received our final state aid budget numbers from Albany. Although state aid increased, funds were restricted to pay for the Governor’s universal pre-kindergarten and community schools mandates.”
Brakewood asked for an investigation into long-term energy savings methods. Specifically, she inquired about Energy Performance Contracts for large maintenance projects coming up in the next few years, such as new boilers that will needed in 2021. With a contract, the district would receive roughly 64% building aid while the newer equipment itself would be more efficient and reduce energy costs.
More immediately, to address the current deficit in the 2019-20 budget, Brakewood requested the district look into offering retirement incentives to all union employees—an initiative the school board approved that night.
Ideally, if enough employees accept the offer, they will be able to replace them at a lesser pay rate and save positions that would otherwise be cut.
Budget spikes and taxes
The $103.75 million proposed budget represents a 6.7% increase compared to the 2018-19 year, which yielded a $97.2 million spending plan. All the additional coffers are being used to fund mandated programs and expenses.
Debt service, transportation, special education and staff salaries and benefits account for most of the spending increases.
With two major bond projects coming to a head, the $80 million capital project bond passed in March 2017 and the $11 million middle school repair bond passed in June 2018, the district is slated to owe $4.7 million in debt service. Roughly a 100% increase compared to last year, which amounted to $2.35 million.
Transportation increases are spiking up 19%, for a total of $3.5 million compared to $2.9 million last year.
Clohessy said due to rising homeless, foster and special education students the district is responsible for, they need to add more buses to their routes. School districts are required to transport these students up to 50 miles.
At this point, Clohessy said they are expecting 218 homeless and foster students, compared to 205 last year, and 91 special education students will need transportation compared to 72 last year.
The residential tax rate is $16.29 for every $1,000 of assessed home valuation, an increase compared to the $16 tax rate last year. Therefore, owners of a home valued at $300,000 can expect to pay $4,887 in school taxes, while a $700,000 home would see an $11,403 tax.
Positions at risk and how to save them
Despite the significant budget-to-budget increase, there is still a $1.2 million deficit at hand.
“Retirement incentives are an efficient way to decrease costs gleaned from breakage; that is, hiring replacement staff at a pay rate less than the retiring individuals,” Brakewood said.
The school board unanimously agreed to initiate a retirement incentive for civil service employees, administrators and supervisors and teachers at that meeting. Union employees eligible for retirement have until May 10 to accept the offer and would be compensated with payment for every unused sick and personal day, varied by the union and length of tenure in the Port Chester Schools.
To bridge the budget gap, Kliszus and Clohessy outlined several “budget reductions and efficiencies” that administrators have determined they can operate without. Maintenance and facilities will need to operate without a lawn mower that needs replacing, and the science program in the elementary schools will be limited to grades 3-5, as opposed to K-5.
Most of the position cut recommendations do not imply job loss. They are either stipend positions that teachers took on in addition to their classroom responsibilities or retirements that will not be filled by a new hire.
For example, at the high school it was determined that stipend department chairs can be sacrificed, along with team/academy leaders at the middle school.
In addition, a handful of teachers and a hall monitor have already resigned for the 2019-20 school year, and the principals believe they can squeeze students into less class sections.
“We expect retirements to increase with the incentive,” Kliszus said. “Then we’d go back and restore what we can.”
“Every time I see a teacher loss, that’s less contact with the students, and that’s a big loss,” Brakewood said. “Is there any other way we can save the positions? I know it’s not cutting a person, but it’s contact with the students.”
Kliszus retorted that if it’s not positions, it would be field trips, academic programs such as IB and AP classes, extracurricular activities, sports and clubs cut instead.
“I don’t see any administration cuts on this list,” Brakewood said. “It’s not equitable to only cut from certain units.”
Board of Education Vice President Christopher Wolff agreed, and said he wants reductions to be fairly spread.
Beyond that, Brakewood added that when they’re restoring positions with incoming retirement savings, she wants teachers to be the priority.
“I want more contact with students,” she firmly stated.
After some deliberation, the board and administrators agreed to add a supervisor position to the list of cuts. While that would mean letting go personnel, it benefits class sizes.
“I will support the budget because it falls in the tax cap, but the Board of Education at this meeting has done a complete turnaround compared to what they were talking about last year,” said Quintard Drive resident George Ford, one of the few members of the public who attended the meeting. “I have disappointment in the entire process and the fashion that they’re making the cuts.”
Elaborating, Ford questioned why Brakewood advocated for adding a supervisor position to the list of reductions when those jobs were a contentious matter in the 2018-19 budget that she supported maintaining.
The general discussion of the night also left a sour taste in his mouth. It was strange to him that the cuts are being spun as “efficiencies;” an optimistic spin that differs drastically in attitude compared to last year. In addition, Ford said he’s concerned that limiting the science program will add more burden to the elementary school teachers.
Before the next Board of Education meeting on Tuesday, Apr. 23, school board members will ponder their position restoration priorities. At that Apr. 23 meeting, they will discuss those rankings, finalize a list, and adopt a budget by the end of the night.
On May 21, the community will be able to approve or reject the spending plan at the polls.