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A conversation with Dr. Rubie Harris about Grand Island Central School District budget

Sat, Mar 19th 2022 07:00 am

Part One by Alice E. Gerard

The Grand Island Central School District’s annual budget vote will be held on May 17, and the school district, along with the Board of Education, is preparing for that vote. To get a better understanding of the process that the school district goes through when preparing for a budget vote, I sat down with Dr. Rubie Harris, assistant superintendent for business and finance. She explained the school district’s priorities, where funding comes from, how a budget is put together, as well as the timeline for the approval process. In addition, she talked about the universal pre-kindergarten program, as well as the process of purchasing and replacing electronic devices used by students.

Dr. Harris: Well, so, two things happen. The governor gives the final numbers in April, but they are still working out the details for language, so that there’s all of this stuff that will come so much later. I guess, as long as you give me the numbers, you can figure out the language when you get to it. That way, we can move our vote along. So, on March 7, there were no updated state aid projections. We did receive information that we are going to have 10 teachers retiring. We updated some expenditure areas, allowed the board to ask questions. The next meeting is April 4. That could be a budget adoption date. It is very close to April 1. I don’t know if we will be ready on April 4 for full budget adoption. The last possible date to adopt is April 19. The public hearing is May 9, and the vote is May 17. I think something to note here is the budget hearing has to be seven to 14 days before your budget vote. That is a requirement. You can’t do the public hearing at the end of April because that puts you too far out from what is required for the vote.

Alice: What are the biggest goals for the Grand Island Central School District’s five-year plan?

Dr. Harris: It depends on what side of the house you live in. For my side of the house, in reference to budget goals, you want a sustainable budget. We are trying to protect the fund balance, which really helps us do different initiatives, and make sure that there are not drastic changes from one year to the next with the programs offered, just in case there is ever the event that maybe state funding changes, maybe we go back to the old days where the state’s withholding funds. Do we have funds available on the side to fund those things or for capital plans? And clearly retain all community-mandated student programs. I think that’s a big thing. I don’t think people always realize what programs are state mandated vs. what programs are really the push from your community to make sure they are there. We have a whole tech wing. We have students who take special classes. Those are not mandated by the state to be offered, but we want to offer kids the most that we can. So, we always make sure that’s a component that people are aware of.

Then, after that, you have the overall strategic plan, which is a district component. So, wellness and behavioral health of students. That’s extremely big, coming off of the craziness of COVID. Just making sure that we are looking at the students as a whole and being able to assist them in any way possible. We are using general fund money for that. We are using American Rescue Plan money for that. We’re pulling all different resources to provide that to students. Connectiveness. I think that you see that especially with everybody being able to voice as stakeholders what they feel is needed for the school district and being respectful. We do our Town Board meetings a couple of times a year. And inter-building communications and practices are really big. You have Kaegebein and you have Huth, which house the same grades. Making sure that they are working together, really collaboratively, to make sure that kids in grades 2-5 are still receiving the same, no matter which building they are at. Of course, we want our children to do well with academic achievements.

A big thing was curriculum mapping and expanding our STEAM curriculum so we are always looking to see what different departments need and our requesting. We had high school tech, now we have middle school tech. They actually got an engraver, so they are doing glass engraving. It’s really high-tech quality, the things that our students are getting access to really help them figure out what they want to do in life or just to explore what opportunities are out there. A lot of people don’t find that out until college and beyond.

Alice: It would help them with every facet of life since there is so much technology, and they could help people like me, who didn’t grow up with technology. Tell me what STEAM stands for. I know about STEM, but I don’t know about STEAM.

Dr. Harris: It adds in the art. Science, technology, engineering, art, and math.

This goes over the development process. We are now clearly in March, but these are all of the steps that we took. We have one-on-one meetings; we have group meetings. We go over enrollment projections and the executive budget. I am assuming that the governor will have an on-time budget, by April 1 or sooner. Hopefully, a couple of days before. We will have our final estimated numbers. People say, these are your final numbers. No, they’re estimates, but final before the actual filing of school district financial information.

Alice: You have to time it very carefully.

Dr. Harris: Yes. Cheryl Cardone (assistant superintendent for pupil personnel services) did a presentation in reference to pupil personnel services. Requests that she has are for a 1.0 (full-time) ENL (English as a new language) teacher, a 1.0 speech pathologist, which we are currently contracting through BOCES. Then she gave the cost of both of those positions, and the change in numbers so we have we have an increasing ELL (English language learner) student population. Because of her change in numbers, she is just asking for additional assistance for the school buildings. We are contracting right now a speech pathologist through BOCES. The cost through BOCES is about $122,000. If we bring this internally, we could have a 1.0, with salary and benefits for $82,000, so it makes sense to hire someone internally because there is longevity with that person.

And what I always say is, when we’re doing a service through BOCES and we say, ‘Can we bring this in house, my first question is ‘Do you need the person for more than two years? Is this something that we just hit a balloon of a need and is going to fizzle out or is it something that we need long term?’ If we need it long term, definitely bring it in house, but, if it’s a one- or two-year thing, BOCES costs more, but then you’re not getting rid of a person. You’re just saying to BOCES, “I don’t need this assignment anymore.”

I play that game because nobody wants to bring someone in and you’re laying them off because, “Oh, I don’t need you anymore.” When you’re doing a service with BOCES, it becomes BOCES’ responsibility to replace that person.

There is also a 1.0 FTE (full-time equivalent) request for a social worker. This is a large initiative for Dr. Graham, Cheryl, and the board in making sure that the support is there for students that need it. Kids are going through a lot.

Alice: It’s been very traumatic for everybody, but especially for kids because it’s harder for them to process.

Dr. Harris: It’s nice to see everybody’s little faces now. We are also continuing summer programs. We have a special education summer program for k-12 in the district. That will be continuing, as well as our elementary English as a new language program. That is a different pot of money, but we just like to update the board that we’re going to continue the initiative.

Alice: I’d like to ask you about the universal pre-kindergarten aid. It looks like a fairly decent increase. What is going on with that? Are they expending the program or how is that working?

Dr. Harris: Last budget year, it was announced that there was going to be federal funding for full-day universal pre-kindergarten (UPK). That was new last year. It gets a little confusing because the state was providing. Grand Island received $110,823 from the state. In past years, outside of the current school year that we’re in, we have used that program as a half-day program. Those kids have been at Sidway primarily. And then, we also had children at Kiddos’ Corner. So, this current school year, because the federal government is giving money for this and that. One of the things was full-day UPK. We received $367,200 for full-day UPK. So, in June, we did an RFP process for community-based organizations. We call them CBOs so that was Island Kids, Care a Lot. It could be Kinder Kidz. Anywhere that’s a day care place that says, “Hey, I have to qualifications to do a UPK program.” Are you willing to? So, they responded. Our responses were Care-a-Lot and Island Kids. Through the additional funds that we received, we were able to change Sidway to two full-day classrooms, whereas, before, we had one classroom, and she did half-day in the morning and half-day in the afternoon. And then, we had two full day programs running at both of those facilities. And then, we still had seven students who were half-day at Kiddos’ Corner. So, we had a lot going on, and this all changed probably from May through August. Through the change, we were able to provide UPK to 90 kids, which was huge when you were only able to provide for 43 kids, and they were in a half-day program.

Alice: And then, there was a lottery.

Dr. Harris: That process still happens. What we’re currently working on is doing that process again. At the March 21 meeting, we will be approving our CBOs for the 2022-23 school year. So, we are going to get the contracts approved March 21, and then, we will be opening the registration process for parents. What the state is saying, in the 2022-23 and 2023-24 year, this will be partially state funded. The other component is federally funded, and they are planning to fully support through state funds in the ’24-’25 year. So, what they’re trying to say is that there is longevity in this. This isn’t just two to three years of federal funds being thrown at you and, then, in the end, we’re going to drop the program, once the federal money is not there. I love to see that they actually do it. You want to make sure that the money is really there for it to happen.

Alice: You want to see follow-through.

Dr. Harris: Yes, that is what I really love to see. So now, because they are two different pots of money, you have different requirements for each pot of money: how it’s spent, how it’s reported, all of that. I would be glad to see it all come together. Then it’s just one pot. You process it and move forward.

So, our plan for the 2022-23 school year is to fill 90 UPK full time student. That is the maximum that we’ve been allocated, and we are trying to fill every single slot possible.

Alice: Tell me about expense-driven aid because this looks like a large amount of money.

Dr. Harris: Your expense-driven aids are just that. Your aid is dependent on how much you’re spending. So, you have BOCES, textbooks, software, library, computer, public access cost, transportation aid. The reason why that goes up is because our costs are going up. So, if my costs are going up, and you have to provide me with a percentage … 70%, maybe 80%, depending on your district. Once my costs go up, you owe me more money. It’s never most cost goes up to … let’s say, I’m paying $1 million. You’re never giving me back $1 million in that category. We’re not 100% aidable. So, you still have expense on the line. That’s why expense-driven aid will always increase. I don’t perceive costs dropping. Look at the price of gas. And we have buses. So, I can definitely see that increasing. I can’t imagine what the transportation costs are going to look like for fuel next year.

Alice: Tell me about the Chromebooks and the tablets and about replacing them.

Dr. Harris: The district is pretty much one to one. What has happened is, through Smart Schools funds that was allocated five years ago, we have pushed forth the initiative of purchasing Chromebooks far before we knew that COVID was going to happen. Purchasing Chromebooks for students to use for homework, engagement in classrooms, all of those types of utilizations. And because of the timing, you will put in a Smart Schools application. You may be in review for six to eight months. There was an overlap in our application, so let’s say one application is $100,000, the next application of use is $200,000. By the time they’re reviewing both of them, it’s the same time, so they’re like, “Here’s $300,000.” You take your money, and you go out, and you buy tons of Chromebooks. But now, they’re not on a spread, so it’s not like I bought $100,000 worth one year, $100,000 worth a year later, and $100,000 the year after that. So, when they expire, they all expire at the same time because they were bought at the same time. When I say expire, I mean that they will hit a certain point where updates won’t be accepted because the software is out of date.

Alice: And then, you get problems with malware and viruses and all sorts of unpleasant things.

Dr. Harris: Yes. We’re shooting out updates, too, to make sure that all of your security is up to date. It’s a piece of technology you’re putting in students’ hands. So, what is occurring is we have a large bucket of them that will expire at the same time. So that’s why we talk about a replacement plan.

Alice: What do you do with the expired ones?

Dr. Harris: There are two things that are possibly occurring. Either we have something through BOCES for that or you partner with a company to do a salvage value, a buy back, that sort of thing.

Alice: You don’t want anyone to use them, once they can’t be updated.

Dr. Harris: No, especially not our students. We still have to wipe them clean. There’s a lot that goes into that whole process. So, we did receive a large grant. I think that it’s over $300,000, which allows us to purchase Chromebooks, which is great, and we will be able to cover this whole big group that we have going out. But we’re still back in the situation of, “Hey, you bought $300,000 worth of Chromebooks in one year so how does this look three years from now?” So that’s why I try to talk about a replacement plan now so it’s not the ticket price of, “So, you have $300,000 that’s going to be needed because we had to get rid of these Chromebooks.” And I talk about that with all technology. We have the touch TVs. They’re great, except we have to replace them eventually so you will hear me, and I will forever say, “What’s the replacement plan for this? What’s the game plan?” So, that’s what we mean when we talk about that.

Alice: Security is really important. In Buffalo last year, the school system’s computer system got hacked with what looked like a denial-of-service attack.

Dr. Harris: It happens to districts. We talk about cybersecurity for the information, and you get the emails from people. The system’s been hacked. I’m like, geesh. Think about all of the things that we could solve in this world if people used their power for good and not evil.

Next week: Aid to the Grand Island Central School District and other budgetary matters.

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