By Michael DePietro
Interim Tribune Editor
The Niagara-Wheatfield Board of Education on Monday held a virtual public hearing on Zoom regarding the proposed $77,119,627 budget for the 2020-21 fiscal year. While the figures represent a 3.66% increase from last year, the board said most of that will be paid through reserves the district has on hand. The board also discussed plans to continue its popular grab-and-go food service through the end of June, and weighed in on whether the district should continue the program throughout the summer.
Superintendent Daniel Ljiljanich and Assistant Superintendent of Finance and Management Allison Davis began the budget hearing by outlining the board’s funding plans. Due to a lack of funding coming through New York state, the board’s plan is based on a 1.49% increase on the tax levy, and is offset by revenues the board has on hand. A projected 3.66% expenditure increase for next year left the district with a funding gap of $5,474,432. To cover the gap, Davis explained $800,000 will be used from Greenway funds while another $810,000 will be used from capital reserves to purchase buses.
Another $1.8 million will be pulled from the $5 million the district has saved across seven reserve funds. For the remaining $2,014,432, Ljiljanich said that, since some expenses that had been budgeted for last year never occurred due to the COVID-19 outbreak, some funds could simply roll over into this year. That will leave the district’s unappropriated balance virtually untouched.
While there was some concern among board members about whether this funding method was sustainable, Ljiljanich said the board could “absolutely” fund itself this way for next year and the next year.
Ljiljanich praised the budgeting office for the work it has done to secure these reserves.
“Something I think that is important for the residents in the district to understand is a couple of years ago, with the economic situation (the district) was in, we didn’t have these reserves,” he said.
“You always hear the term rainy day reserves; well, it's incredibly rainy day when it comes to finances in New York state and the nation right now, and that's what these reserves are for.”
Beyond the budget, another hot topic at the meeting involved discussions about the future of the district's popular grab-and-go food service. While it was scheduled to end June 19, the board mulled over plans as to whether or not to extend the program throughout the summer months. The program provides meals every Monday, Wednesday and Friday to approximately 500 students enrolled in the program. On each of these days, the district hands out over 2,000 meals, as each student receives two breakfast and two lunches.
Ljiljanich said that, while the cost of food per student enrolled in the free and reduced lunch program is reimbursed by the state, those who are not are paid for by the district. Additionally, the district has to figure out how to pay for staff to cook and deliver the food. According to Ljiljanich, those costs are estimated at $100,000.
Last Friday, the school district conducted a survey amongst families who were picking up food. It found 99% of respondents (397 out 400 surveyed) stating that, if the district did provide food service over the summer, they would use that service. Ljiljanich noted surveys were not conducted with people who had food dropped off to them, but said he assumed the number would be pretty high, as well.
Board member Gina Terbot asked whether or not the district had the funds available to fund the program through the summer without negatively impacting the district's reserves. Ljiljanich said that, if funds were shuffled around, he believed that could happen.
Questions lingered, however, regarding a recent $880 million food assistance program announced by New York state. The program is designed to aid families with children who were getting free meals at school before the transition to at-home learning. Eligible households will receive electronic benefit transfer cards and $420 in assistance per child every month.
Some on the board questioned whether the district would need to continue its own program if people were getting additional assistance.
Terbot responded, “I would like to see us do it through the summer, because a lot of those families may be those people that are just going to be getting called back to work. If they work in retail, retail stores are only going to be at 50% employment, and they may need that extra – and the kids may need that stability as their parents transition back into their normal work life.”
The board agreed to fund the program until June. Members will review the available information to hopefully reach an agreement by the next board meeting.
For all questions concerning food service/delivery, contact program director Domenic Barile at 716-215-3144.