The administration of the Warwick Valley School District opened budget season with news of a projected $1,086,746 shortfall in its proposed budget for the 2020-21 school year.
Speaking at the school board’s work session on Fe. 25, Superintendent of Schools Dr. David Leach noted that, in addition to the deficit, the challenge for the district is finding a way to balance competing mandates of good quality education with responsiveness to taxpayers, both in light of the shortfall and given that New York state aid is not keeping pace with inflation.
“We ... look at areas more closely that need to be reduced, that have the least adverse effect” on students and taxpayers, Leach said.
How are district schools funded?
More than 66 percent the district’s revenue comes from property tax levy; the next largest source comes from New York state aid, at 27 percent; the remainder comes from non-tax sources, such as tuition-paying students from out-of-district and rental of former district school buildings, at a little more than 4 percent; appropriated fund balance of just over 2 percent; and a library bond tax, at 0.44 percent.
The school tax levy for the current (2019-20) school year is $62,506,673; for the 2020-21 school year, the proposed levy is $64,143,012, a difference of $1,636,339, or a 2.6 percent increase. This increase, Leach said, makes five years out of seven where Warwick schools were below the allowable 2.86 percent tax cap: something “no other district can say.”
The former Kings Elementary is “100 percent rented,” Leach said, adding that the former Pine Island Elementary is “on its way.”
The $500,000 in rental income, Leach continued, “is a success story.”
About 215 Greenwood Lake students – 81 percent – pay tuition to attend Warwick Valley High School. According to Leach, the trend will continue next school year (2020-21), when 80 percent of Greenwood Lake’s Middle School eighth graders will enroll at WV high school.
Tuitioning students bring some $2.3 million to the district.
As to help from Albany, Leach said: “We’re shortchanged” because of the formula used to calculate state aid – Warwick is an affluent district, compared with many of its counterparts throughout New York State.
He noted that, as a result, WV is under-funded by about $2 million a year.
Leach expects to take a delegation from the BOE to meet with New York State Senator Jennifer Metzger to advocate on the district’s behalf.
Employee salaries for the current school year total $45,802,911; for the 2020-21 school year, they are expected to total $46,506,911, or an increase of 1.54 percent.
“We’re a ‘people business,’ here for the kids,” Leach said, and that “requires (employing) highly-skilled teachers.”
As the administration looks to close the budget shortfall, it has identified these potential targets totaling $1,086,746. (See sidebar for the specifics areas of reduction).
Transportation – aging buses a concern
The district’s fleet of 75 buses includes 10 65-passenger so-called “spares,” which are actually used for field trips, away games, and to pinch-hit for regular-duty buses taken out of service for repairs.
Director of Transportation Debra Weissman said that the State Department of Transportation is in the bus yard once a week to inspect the fleet, and that “We have a very good DOT profile – 98 or above.”
The better your rating, Weissman said, the greater your privileges.
Weissman and Assistant Superintendent for Business Timothy Holmes presented the status of the fleet to the school board, saying that the district should expect to replace five school buses a year at a minimum, because of the “aging fleet.”
“I have to put money into the fleet,” she said. “(I have) no choice.”
Warwick is 86 square miles, and the buses on average are over 10 years old, each with an excess of 150,000 miles on them on average. Weissman pointed out that the stop-and-start driving that’s typical in operating school buses, combined with typical harsh winters (though not this year) that lead to rust, plus the mileage – both in-district and out-of-district – accelerate the aging process of each vehicle.
Maintenance becomes subject to the law of diminishing returns: Buses with rust require extensive bodywork, which is “problematic,” according to Weissman. Buses with rust will not pass inspection and are not permitted by the DOT to run.
Weissman and Holmes proposed purchasing five new buses for the coming school year: three 65-passenger propane powered at a cost of $369,721.29, and two 65-passenger gas powered, costing $226,750.96.
The problem, in Weissman’s view, with only replacing five buses a year: even after replacing the oldest buses in the fleet, “We’ll still have 15-year-old buses.”
Response to BOE
Board member Bob Howe asked: “Are propane buses projected to have similar longevity (to gas)?”
Yes, Weissman replied, because “the engine doesn’t run as hot.”
Holmes added: “There’s no oil (in the engine), so it doesn’t break down.”
As part of the administration’s efforts to control costs, the district is considering moving back start times at the elementary school level by ten minutes in the morning, which could help eliminate four routes.
School board president Sharon Davis asked about availability of drivers. Weissman said that WV and other districts are struggling with a driver shortage, which is having a “significant impact” on her department.
“We’re competitive” with wages, Weissman said, but WV’s difficulty in attracting additional drivers may be due to “split scheduling and lack of benefits ... a common theme over the last five years.” (WVCSD has had two-tiered busing, compared with, say, Monroe-Woodbury, which has a five-tiered system).
To fill that, gap, board member David Eaton wondered about pressing coaches into service. Weissman said that’s not really done here, plus anyone driving a school bus needs a CDL (Commercial Driver License).
Weissman added that, on talking with colleagues around the country about this issue, “everyone wants buses at 2:30.”
Also challenging to hiring more drivers: A “five-hour wait at the DMV ... there are roadblocks all over the place.”
School board member Keith Parsons wondered if there are enough available funds in the district’s reserve to buy six buses to make up for the deficits in the fleet.
“It’s a balancing act – trying to find the ‘sweet spot’ that’s fair to the taxpayers,” Leach said. He added that the proposed bus purchase is a separate proposition, and that state transportation aid is “significant.”
While the district waits to see Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposed budget for New York State, Leach said that a more accurate picture of WV’s projected budget and projection of revenue will be made available at the next budget meeting on March 23.