By Karen Carr Keefe
Erie County Editor
The Grand Island Board of Education is looking to close a budget gap of at least $1,478,957 after its first review of the draft budget for the school year 2021-22.
In a normal year, the gap – which could grow to $2,894,626 if new requests were all included – would be the biggest news out of the school board meeting held Monday, Feb. 8 and streamed online.
However, this year, in the midst of a pandemic, center stage was held by a long line of parents, expressing sadness and frustration over the perceived inadequacy of virtual and hybrid learning. Those methods just aren’t cutting it, they told school board members and Superintendent Brian Graham during the public comment period session.
Graham thanked the speakers beforehand for expressing their concerns and noted that two comment portions of the agenda would be combined into one session. Board President Ashli Dreher said board members can listen, but not comment directly during the meeting, on the concerns expressed.
Graham said, “I just want to make sure that our community knows that we feel and understand the pain and aggravation that is related to the pandemic, as well as related to our district’s choice of hybrid as a model for teaching and learning.” He added, “We all really want what you want … high quality, in-person teaching and learning.”
He said the teaching model is controlled by compliance with state regulations to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
Cheryl Reimer of Grand Island was first in the long line of speakers. She has two grandsons enrolled in elementary school and she is a New York state-licensed teacher with 30 years of experience and a COVID-19 survivor. “My question is, I don’t understand why our public schools are not open full-time, in-person learning. Parochial schools and other school districts – [she cited Niagara Wheatfield and Sweet Home] have found their way. Why not us? To board members, are you actively seeking and researching what we still need to do to make this happen? …Yes, your job is difficult, but this is about our children. The safest place for many of our children is in the school, not only to meet their academic needs … but also nutritional, social and emotional development.”
Many speakers echoed her sentiments and pleaded with the board and administration to consider the kids.
As the meeting later returned to budget items, there was much to review, but board members were reminded that it is early in the process, and much can change.
The draft budget was presented by Rubie Harris, Ph.D., assistant superintendent for Finance and Support Services, and Graham. A recap of the draft budget shows total expenditures of $67.8 million and total revenue (including the tax levy maximum increase) of $66.3 million, leaving that gap of $1.478 million. The tax levy maximum increase is set at $36,308, 369. Other revenue without the tax levy, totals $30,024,257. That portion before the tax levy comes from state aid of $16.885 million; building aid of $4.65 million; sales tax revenue of $3.01 million; other revenue pegged at $867,300; and reserves of $4.6 million.
Harris stressed that the tax levy limit is subject to change because she is waiting for the BOCES capital exclusion information.
Harris explained, “This is the first presentation of at least three budget presentations. I do have a slot for a fourth one, if needed. This is just the first, rough draft look of what we are anticipating for next school year,” she said.
Also, a special budget study workshop is scheduled for March 8. Possible budget adoption is on the calendar for April 12, and April 20 is the mandatory budget adoption date.
There is a May 10 public budget hearing, and the community budget vote and board seat elections are scheduled for May 18.
“What will start to take place is, I will be meeting with our administrative team and our department to have discussions on what is a need vs. what is a want,” Harris said. “Dr. Graham talks about, is there any way to keep class sizes close to where they are and move people within buildings, maybe to a different grade level. Is there internal coverage that can happen?” These discussions will happen collaboratively, Harris said.
“One of the requests for Huth was for two second-grade teachers. Well, if I’m able to cover that with an internal coverage, I may only need one second-grade teacher.” That’s one of the ways you can have a reduction in the gap, Harris said.
The additional requests for this coming school year total $1,415,669. Those requests, if all honored, would bring the budget gap up to the $2.894 million. They are the expenses that are added in as requests, beyond the standard budget obligations for next year.
“The executive budget from the governor was drafted with the assumption that we (school districts in New York state) are going to get $6 billion from the federal government,” Harris said. They are thinking that is the worst-case scenario, she said. “So school aid has not increased, but it has been back-filled with federal dollars. I am grateful to receive revenue – we’re not talking cuts – but there is a concern about what this looks like two years from now, a year from now, when the federal government is not providing the funding,” she said. “We know the state won’t bounce back that quickly … In all honesty, this looks like the gap elimination adjustment that happened. It looks like that all over again, “ she said. With a one-shot revenue source, once it’s gone, there’s a hole to fill. “And districts were left to figure out to correct the hole or you have to start making cuts to staffing and programs.” She said it’s also important to note that there’s been no increase in foundation aid since the 2019-20 school year – the districts have been frozen at that aid amount, “which really means there’s no new money, because the other aid categories are expense-driven aid,” she said.” If the aid has gone up, it’s because you spent more.”