Formal budget discussions begin with State of the Schools, preliminary budget overview

text and scalePublic budget discussions got underway in Bethlehem at the Feb. 8 Board of Education meeting as Superintendent Jody Monroe presented her 2018 State of the Schools address and Chief Business and Financial Officer Judith Kehoe outlined preliminary figures for the 2018-19 school district budget. The presentations mark the formal beginning of public budget deliberations that conclude in May with the annual budget vote.

In her State of the Schools presentation, Superintendent Monroe:

  • Provided an update on the work of the district’s Strategic Planning Committee, which began meeting last fall. The update included a summary of the results of a community survey conducted in December. A full summary of the survey results can be found here. If you can not access the PDF, you can also view survey highlights here:
  • Reviewed current district goals and reported on progress in several areas, including the Power of One Chromebook program which provides students in grades 3-12 a Chromebook device. She also discussed the introduction of iReady assessments for students K-8 that are aimed at improving personalized, or differentiated, learning. Other ongoing school initiatives include expanded K-12 counseling, as well as mental health and wellness initiatives for students and staff, and staff training in the areas of diversity and cultural awareness.
  • Looked back at recent budget history, state aid trends and comparative costs of education in Bethlehem and statewide and looked ahead at enrollment projections as well as residential development in the Town of Bethlehem.

“Our faculty, staff, and administrators have made tremendous efforts in meeting 2017-18 goals for the district,” said Monroe. “We establish these goals prior to the start of the school year and they serve as a guide for our collaborative work on behalf of students. With a focus on a robust educational program, technology integration, personalized learning, safety, health and wellness for students and staff, I’m pleased to say the state of our schools is strong.”

Superintendent Monroe’s annual presentation also provides a backdrop for preliminary budget discussions.

Looking at recent budget trends in the district, Monroe noted that annual budget growth in the district had been, on average, 1.95 percent over the last five years. Tax levy increases have averaged 1.65 percent over the same five-year period.

Cost per pupil, she said, remains considerably lower in Bethlehem compared to other districts statewide, with a per-pupil cost of $20,197. The average cost per pupil statewide is $23,361; and similar districts spend, on average, $26,816 per student. The data was part of the district’s 2016-17 School Report Card provided by the New York State Education Department. New York State School Report Cards are available here.

Superintendent Monroe also discussed the most recent enrollment projections prepared by the Capital District Regional Planning Board and reviewed current and proposed residential development in the Town of Bethlehem.

Baseline budget gap larger than expected

Following Superintendent Monroe’s State of the Schools presentation, Chief Business and Financial Officer Judith Kehoe previewed budget estimates that include a baseline budget gap of approximately $3.3 million for the 2018-19 school year.

The gap is larger than the projected $1.4 million deficit that had been included last year as part of the district’s multi-year budget forecast, she said.

“Every year, we look ahead three years using data and reasonable assumptions of what to expect,” said Kehoe. “However, when we put our projections together last spring, the expenditure projections were well below the actual growth in fringe benefit costs, and the revenue projections were also lower, primarily from reductions in actual state aid. These two factors combined put us approximately $1.9 million below where we had hoped to be in beginning our budget development discussions for next year.”

Kehoe said on the expense side, retirement and insurance costs are estimated to increase by $1.6 million alone.

“Education is a people business and even minor to moderate fluctuations in costs related to employee benefits can have a huge impact,” said Kehoe. “Fortunately, we have several tools to address the gap so that we can continue to provide exceptional educational programs to our community. But we certainly have some work to do in the coming months.”

The Board of Education is required to adopt a proposed 2018-19 budget prior to April 11. District residents will vote on the spending plan on Tuesday, May 15.

In her presentation to the board, Kehoe said baseline expenditures for the fiscal year that begins July 1 are approximately $100.4 million, an increase of 3.38 percent over the current year’s budget. This level of expenditures assumes no changes to staffing or programs for the 2018-19 school year, Kehoe explained.

Baseline revenues for 2018-19, that assume no increase in the tax levy and are based on state aid projections included in Governor’s proposed 2018-19 executive state budget, are estimated at $97.1 million, she said.

The amount of state aid the district would receive under the Governor’s Executive Budget proposal is estimated to decrease by $155,000 over current year state aid. The amount of state aid to Bethlehem is not expected to grow as the state budget process moves forward, explained Kehoe, given the growing deficits anticipated by the state.

Tax cap is 3.95 percent

At the meeting, Kehoe outlined the district’s tax cap calculation which revealed a Maximum Allowable Tax Levy (MATL) increase for Bethlehem of 3.95 percent in 2018-19. If the Board of Education were to adopt a budget with a tax levy at the limit of 3.95 percent, she said, it would generate approximately $2,536,000 for the district.

“If the Board votes to levy taxes that requires a simple majority vote on the budget, that amount would need to be at or below the 3.95 percent increase,” said Kehoe.

As the budget development process moves forward, Kehoe told the board, the district will identify areas where cost savings may be available, including salary breakage from retirements. District administrators will also outline instructional and department-level priorities and identify opportunities for addressing the most pressing student needs in a proposed 2018-19 budget. These presentations will be the subject of forthcoming meetings. A schedule can be found below.

A schedule of upcoming meetings can be found below:

  • February 28, 2018
    Board of Education Meeting, 7 p.m. Transportation, Bus Replacement Plan, Technology
  • March 7, 2018
    Board of Education Meeting, 7 p.m. Athletics, Operations & Maintenance
  • March 21, 2018
    Board of Education Meeting, 7 p.m. Instructional Staffing & Programming, Special Ed and Student Services
  • April 10, 2018 (Tuesday)
    Board of Education Meeting, 7 p.m. Discussion, Decisions, and Adoption
  • May 1, 2018 (Tuesday)
    Meet the BOE Candidates Night, HS Cafeteria, 6:30 p.m.
  • May 2, 2018
    Board of Education Meeting, 7 p.m. Public Hearing on Proposed Budget
  • May 15, 2018
    Budget Vote, 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. BCHS Gym A/Upper Gym

All meetings will take place at Bethlehem Central High School.