The Amity Board of Education plans to ask taxpayers to support a budget for the upcoming school year during a town budget hearing April 26 at 7:30 p.m. at High Plains. The initial plan carried a 1.87% increase, which lowered to a 1.21% increase based on a savings in medical claims.
“To know that the number for Amity is going to be low this year is a good feeling for me,” said Orange Board of Finance member James Leahy. The five-year average budget increase is 2.2%.
“Nine and one-half percent of the Amity budget is debt service, 65 and a half percent is salaries and benefits. That is not uncharacteristic, that would be the same in most school budgets,” Superintendent of Schools Chip Dumais said.
Just under 10% of the budget goes to special education and the remaining 15.4% is designated ‘other.’ “We’re seeing a $500,000 increase in salaries in the budget, but a decrease in benefits of over $300,000 due to our great claim performance,” Dumais said. If approved, the budget adds .2 strings teacher and 1 para-educator.
“We get a lot of questions – if student enrollment has gone down, why hasn’t staffing gone down over the last five years? Certified staff and classified staff do not cost the same amount. We have seen in increase of 1.6% in special ed staff and a decrease of 4.2% certified staff for a net 2.6% decrease in certified staff. Classified staff has gone up, which is mainly para-educators, and that is based on the needs of students,” Dumais said.
The budget includes a new 1:1 technology initiative with a $135,000 initial cost that will be offset by an $80,000 in savings for not replacing desktop computers.
John Belfonti, Board of Education member and chairman of the Amity Finance Committee addressed the Orange Board of Finance, first supporting the budget, saying, “It’s a strong budget, very well thought out. We feel the number is reasonable.” He then asked for support to appropriate that 1% of the budget to be set aside for capital improvements.
While drafting and discussing the budget, the Board of Education is considering holding a Special District Meeting to appropriate 1% or $484,391 of the 2017-2018 operating budget to the Capital and Nonrecurring fund for future capital items. One percent is the maximum amount allowed by State statute.
“If you have a surplus, which we’ve been fortunate enough to have, some of that money – up to one percent of the budget – can be put aside. That can be used instead of bonding or other means of financing projects,” he said. “We are looking at a fairly large surplus for the current year and we are looking at using some of that money to set aside for capital projects. The capital projects we’re talking about is what we are looking to bond in a year and a half to two years from now. The purpose is to look towards not using as much principal in the bond that we’re going to be putting out and using that money toward the bond.”
“We’re not looking at every year in a silo, we’re looking at a long-term, long-range plan. There are a lot of projects that need to be done. We’ve had success with bonds going forward in years past and we’re looking forward to that again and this is a way that can defray the total cost of the bond,” Belfonti said.
It’s important to look ahead and anticipate, said Dumais. “One of the things that we have done well over the past four or five years is paying attention to planning for the future with five-year plans for facilities and technology and even textbooks. I think this is a mechanism where capital projects so often get cut from operating budgets and schools are not left with any other way to complete projects,” he explained.
Amity Board of Education member Thomas Hurley, from Orange, also supports setting capital funds aside. “It is imperative that we don’t let our schools get in the shape that they were in before we spent $70 million rebuilding them. Having the money in place for when we need it, and without paying bond interest and bond fees is sound financial planning. Just because you may disagree with something that is on that list should not change the fundamental fact that this is good planning,” he said.
How the money is spent would be subject to Amity facilities committee, then the finance committee and Board of Education consideration and approval.
By Melissa Nicefaro – Orange Town News Correspondent