As the May 15 vote nears on the Peekskill City School District’s $74,325,932 budget for the 2012-13 school year, which begins July 1, Patch reporter Jeff Canning sat down with Superintendent of Schools James Willis May 8 to review for Patch readers how the spending plan was developed, the impact of the 2 percent cap on the district tax levy, the computation of state aid, new directions in education and where the district goes from here. Following is the first half of a summary of their two-hour discussion.
How the budget was developed.
Computation began several months ago with a computer-assisted “rollover” budget, in which such known expenses as contracted salary increases, cost of living adjustments and contributions to the state’s retirement benefits program were added to the district’s 2011-12 spending plan of $72,013,090. Except for the higher costs the 2012-13 rollover budget would continue the district’s instructional and operational programs as they are this school year.
With the “expense rollover” in hand, the district then turned its attention to revenue, the primary sources of which are local property taxes and state aid. Other sources include grants, payments in lieu of taxes, utility taxes and the district’s share of the Westchester County sales tax.
Initial computations found Peekskill looking at a shortfall of $3.5 million. Going through the budget line by line, Willis cut $1 million while trying to avoid cuts in staff and programs directly involving students. By asking at each line “What did we budget? What did we spend?” he was able to recoup additional amounts. The district also drew down its fund balance. But at the end of that process the schools still faced a gap of $1.4 million between anticipated expenses and anticipated revenue.
While still hoping for more state aid than expected, the district eliminated the gap by cutting staff, which Willis described as “a very, very difficult process, since the staffing is already tight”—about 450 full-time and part-time employees serving a total (and increasing) student body of 3,000. Through a combination of replacing retirees with lower-paid newcomers or not at all, reducing full-time positions to part-time and, finally, layoffs, the district closed the last of the gap by eliminating the equivalent of 12.27 full-time positions.
In conjunction with the Board of Education, district officials tried to focus on positions that could be shared, reduced or eliminated, not particular individuals. It is easier to cut certain teaching and counseling positions than those of support staff or administrators, Willis said; the remaining teachers make up the difference through larger classes, the remaining counselors shoulder larger caseloads of students. By contrast, the work load of support staff and administrators is less easily concentrated upon fewer employees. As an example, Willis cited the district’s attempt to operate this school year without a director of human resources; so many problems resulted that the position was reinstated in April.
Staff cuts “absolutely” affect the level of instruction, Willis said, especially when class size exceeds 24 students. “Even a great teacher can handle only so much.”
The impact of the cap on the district tax levy.
The 2012-13 budget is Peekskill’s first under the constraints of the 2 percent cap on increases in the district tax levy, which was imposed by the state last year in the interest of property tax relief. The levy is the total amount of property tax that can be collected in the school district. School officials have emphasized that the budget complies with the cap, even though the levy-to-levy increase is 3.3 percent because certain expenses are exempt from its computation. The levy is $36,188,501, up $1,167,798 from this year. Please click here for an explanation of why the cap—derived through an eight-step computation—does not translate into a 2 percent cap on the tax increase for a particular property.
Willis said the cap would push Peekskill and other districts “faster along the technology trail than we would have gone otherwise.” Distance learning and online study are not futuristic concepts but are here now, with the technology to make them happen, held back primarily by antiquated classroom “seat-time” requirements, requirements that the state is under increasing pressure to change. “Minutes” requirements should not be imposed on how people learn, he said; minutes are for traditional classrooms, not virtual classrooms. The emphasis should be on learning, not the amount of time spent in class.
Technology-driven changes in how students learn will mean fewer teachers and resulting reduced expenses, since one online teacher—perhaps not even locally based—can teach many classes in many schools, with only a lower-salaried teaching assistant required in each classroom. Digital textbooks will enable students to click on a photo and watch a video of the subject. “Avatar teachers” will be like private online tutors. Enslavement to keyboards will be replaced by voice-activated devices.
“It’s all happening right now,” Willis said, with youngsters adapting faster than adults and learning as much, if not more, than through traditional methods. Students currently in elementary schools can expect to learn through these new methods before completing their schooling.
Peekskill’s new alternative education program is expected to be a prototype of distance learning for the entire district, Willis said. An “ambitious goal” is to have all electives and Advanced Placement courses taught by distance learning by 2013/14.
One downside to increased technology is a decrease in human contact even as communication increases, but Willis is confident that students will adapt and adjust.
“It’s all about the kids,” he repeatedly emphasized.
Please visit Patch tomorrow for Part II.