ST. REGIS FALLS –– The St. Regis Falls Board of Education agreed Tuesday to increase the overall budget for the 2020-21 fiscal year by $100,000 as a hedge against potential cuts in state aid as the nation works through the COVID-19 pandemic.
The increase will not affect the amount the district plans to raise through taxes, as the additional money will be drawn from surplus funds.
School officials had entered Tuesday’s discussions looking at a budget for the coming year of roughly $9.55 million, a spending increase of about $578,000 over the current year. That figure represented a roughly $200,000 decrease from the spending plan discussed at the beginning of April.
But the board on Tuesday opted to add $100,000 back into the budget after board member Thomas O’Bryan voiced concerns about looming cuts in state aid stemming from a budget deficit that could total $61 billion over the next four years.
District Business Susan Perkins said the state aid payment due in June could be $250,000 less than the current budget anticipates.
Adding to the budget will create a cushion to help the district weather any state cuts, O’Bryan said.
“Even if all the wheels come off, we’ll be able to sustain this,” he said.
The money to soften any state blow will be drawn from the district’s fund balance, which was estimated to be roughly $906,000 in the next fiscal year. The budget plan had already called for using $100,000 from that balance to pay the district’s final share of the $18.9 million BOCES capital improvement project and an additional $383,000 to help hold the line on property taxes.
The added use of $100,000 from the fund will still leave the district with an unreserved fund balance of $806,000, or about 8.49% of the total budget.
State law sets the maximum amount of fund balance a school district should carry at 4% of its total budget, and the state Comptroller’s Office has in the past criticized the district for having balances that approached 20%. District officials, who have defended the large balances as a way to protect district property owners from unexpected tax increases, say they are currently trying to hold the balance under 10%.
The money will be used to support instruction and to pay for additional training in online instruction for teachers, O’Bryan said. If the state aid cuts turn out not to be as harsh as expected, the money can be returned to the fund balance, he noted.
“The more flexibility we can have, the better it will be,” he added.
Board President Lyndon Farmer called the $100,000 allocation “a rainy day kind of fund” that won’t be spent unless it is necessary.
The budget that will go before district voters will now total $9.65 million, with a tax levy of roughly $2.9 million, an increase of about $81,000 over the current year, Perkins said. That increase represents an average tax hike of about 50 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value, from a current figure of $17.62 per $1,000 to about $18.12 per $1,000, she said.
The district will hold a virtual public hearing on the spending plan at 6 p.m. on May 26. Instructions on how to participate in the hearing will be posted on the district’s website.