The Greater Johnstown School District’s $38.97 million 2020-21 proposed budget passed Tuesday by a vote of 1,382 to 731.
The school budget passed with 65 percent approval, exceeding the 60 percent threshold needed for the budget’s proposed 5 percent tax levy increase.
Johnstown has had record-breaking voter turnout the last several years as the district has faced tax levy increases to dig itself out of a multi-million annual budget deficit. School Board President Chris Tallon said he was glad so many voters were willing to cooperate with the safety measures necessary to conduct in-person voting during the coronavirus pandemic.
“On the process, I’d like to thank all of the voters for adhering to all of the processes and procedures that were put in place to negotiate with COVID-19 and keep everybody safe,” Tallon said. “We understand it’s a little different than what everybody was used to, but it went very well. We want to thank the community for once again coming out in record-breaking numbers.”
Voters narrowly rejected the exact same budget proposal on July 9 when the all mail-in vote showed 1,526 yes votes and 1,137 no votes, which was 57 percent approval, but less than the 60 percent needed to exceed the financially stressed school district’s tax cap, which for 2020-21 was negative 2 percent.
Some district voters complained prior to the in-person vote Tuesday that the school district did not mail out ballots to every eligible voter as was the case for the July 9 votes. District officials have said the New York State Dept. of Education had no rules requiring or enabling another ballot mailing to every district resident, which cost about 17,000 to mail out 7,000 ballots.
The combination of in-person and requested absentee ballots Tuesday resulted in 2,113 total votes, which is 550 fewer than the 2,663 votes during the all mail-in school budget election July 9.
Tallon said the cost of providing personal protective equipment to staff for the in-person vote “was minimal.”
Safety cones and floor markers were used to facilitate social distancing during the in-person vote Tuesday, and voters with last names from A-L were separated into one area, while M-Z voted down a different hallway near the Johnstown Performing Arts Center.
The budget increases the GJSD’s $9.85 million total property tax levy by $492,790, and helps stabilize the district’s financial future, although it came at the steep cost of closing the Glebe Street Elementary School and Knox Junior High School.
During the 2019-20 school budget process Johnstown school officials had projected the school would need three consecutive 14 percent tax levy hikes in order to dig the district out of its financial hole.
“This puts us in a better position next year, where hopefully well be able to go out with another single-digit [tax levy] increase,” said School Board President Chris Tallon.
The 2020-21 budget approved by voters uses about $3 million of the district’s fund balance of unspent tax revenues to balance the budget in addition to savings from staff cuts (three teacher positions, two food service workers, one nurse, two principals, six teaching assistants, one secretary, a two-thirds athletic director position and one assistant principal) and other costs associated with running Knox and Glebe Street as classroom buildings.
The budget also includes about $2.6 million worth of funding in excess of anticipated expenses meant to restore most of the $3 million reserves spent from the district’s fund balance of unspent tax revenues, but that assumes no mid-year state aid cuts.
New York state, due to a projected $14 billion deficit, has warned school district’s a mid-year state aid cut may happen, in which case some or all of the $2.6 million budgeted to bolster the district’s reserves might be spent to offset cuts to state aid.
District officials have estimated the GJSD at the end of the 2020-21 budget might only have $1 million left in reserves if the $2.6 million in reserves isn’t available to replenish the reserves spending, which would set the district up for another fiscal cliff.
Interim Superintendent Karen Geelan has said the 2020-21 budget approved by voters Tuesday has the chance to stabilize the GJSD’s finances going forward.
Tallon said there are still many unknowns going forward.
“All of that is contingent on what happens with state aid. We still don’t know any of those numbers yet, but [the 2020-21 budget] puts us in a position where we can lower our projections from a 14 percent [tax levy increase] to down to possibly a 9 or 8 percent increase,” he said.
The 2020-21 budget fundamentally changes the way students will be educated within the district, eliminating its Junior High School, which had a long tradition in the community, and moving its 7th and 8th grade students to a unused wing of the high School.
Knox will now be used as a district administration building, as well hosting some classes run by outside organizations that will pay rent. Glebe Street will host the HFM BOCES P-Tech high school, which also pays the district rent. The district is looking to sell the former Jansen Avenue Elementary School, which had been hosting P-Tech.