We are fortunate in Rye to have had robust community engagement throughout the 2015-2016 school budget process.
By Laura Slack, President of the Rye City School Board
We are fortunate in Rye to have had robust community engagement throughout the 2015-2016 school budget process. Starting last fall the administration looked at enrollment, current class size and offerings, security and technology needs, pension and health care costs, and potential state aid while building the Superintendent’s Recommended Budget presented in February. Since then, the Board and the community have asked questions, sought detail, and examined the budget in depth. We have had the opportunity to speak with and hear from many Rye residents — preschool parents to empty nesters, parents with children in the school system to grandparents.
Many have asked about the school enrollment. It is clear that the Schools have many more students than ten years ago. People have asked how many students will be in the Schools next year and why is enrollment an issue right now. All of us know that Rye is a wonderful place to live. Every year, more parents discover what we know – Rye, with its award-winning schools, is a terrific place to live and raise a family. And every year, more children enroll in the schools than predicted by demographers.
Given Rye’s desirability, student enrollment has been putting pressure on the school budget for many years. The District has hired the necessary teachers for the increase in elementary school children by putting a portion of the reserves towards the operating budget. Now, high school teachers are needed to keep up with the increased number of students there. Given enrollment, record high pension rates, and unfunded mandates handed down by the State, the District has used reserves to keep tax increases low, but now must reduce the use of reserves to preserve the financial health of the School District.
The Board has heard community questions regarding the reserves school districts are permitted to maintain. Rye City School District has 4 reserve funds, although the two most often talked about are the undesignated/unassigned reserve and the tax certiori fund. By law, School Districts in New York are allowed to reserve 4% of their total budget in the undesignated/unassigned fund, which is exactly the amount the District maintains. With regard to the tax certiorari fund, the District calculates the appropriate level for this reserve based on the potential liability of the tax certiorari claims filed. This reserve enables the District to pay refunds from outside the operating budget, as districts should never have to lay off a teacher, change an educational program mid-school year or borrow funds to pay a large tax certiorari refund.
The other two reserves are the Capital and ERS reserve funds. I am proud to report that every year in my nine years of Board service, the District finances, including the reserves, have received the highest possible opinion from external auditors.
Board officers and the Superintendent met with two esteemed members of the community concerned with the largest driver of any school budget – compensation. They understand the Board has an active role in contract negotiations, in contrast to pension costs dictated by state law. These concerned citizens believe a quality school system is important and have urged the Board to communicate with Rye’s citizens regarding the compensation costs so everyone understands this important issue.
Preschool parents were frequent participants at Board meetings, and many expressed interest in the educational and developmental impact of full-day kindergarten. Kindergarten teachers and the Administrators presented the benefits of more time for students to reach milestones and master skills, more access to the teacher and increase in student stamina. Through the course of the budget process, the Administration was able to reduce the cost of full-day kindergarten through staffing efficiencies for the program’s music and art components.
By the time the Board adopted the proposed 2015-2016 School Budget, more information had become available which allowed for additional budget reductions. The State, upon passing its own budget, informed Rye it would receive school aid $84,000 above projections. Several of the District’s valued, longtime teachers decided to retire and we all wish them well. Through these efficiencies, aid and decreased personnel costs, the District trimmed $500,000 from the budget before adoption in April.
We are lucky to live in such an engaged community. The budget process has been improved by our community’s questions and ideas as the Board and Administration worked to refine the 2015-2016 School Budget on which the community will vote on May 19, and we are truly grateful to all the participants.