Donahue Updates SWCS Board On Budget
Every time Maureen Donahue looks at a calendar, the time that has passed since March 16 has never failed to amaze her.
“We are in January and it started with the shutdown on March 16,” the Southwestern Central School superintendent said during a meeting earlier this week.
“I just had a conversation with a parent earlier tonight and it’s really startling to think this is however many months old,” Donahue said. “There’s nothing novel about this anymore — we’re all kind of ready for it to be over and some of the things for our kids, one of the things I said to somebody was, ‘I’m not telling the kids ‘No’ anymore.’ There’s this whole academic piece, but there’s this whole social-emotional piece also.”
But despite the amount of time that has passed, one thing remains to be clear: the district’s budget situation. In the absence of federal aid, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has threatened a 20% cut in state aid to school districts and municipalities.
“It’s really going to take a toll on our budget this year,” she said. “We don’t know yet. On Monday, (Gov. Andrew Cuomo) did the State of the State, but no education issues were mentioned.”
Donahue told board members that the district, “little-by-little” has seen some budget reductions.
“March is our biggest aid payment that comes in and between now and March, something has to happen, because if they cut significantly out of the aid payment, we’re going to all feel a lot of pain,” she noted, explaining that district administration has “planned to feel some pain.”
“None of us want to feel that 20%,” she said. “There isn’t a district in New York state that can weather that.”
Donahue did say that schools “did get a little bit more money in the CARES Act and in the last stimulus package,” but cautioned that she didn’t know what that money would look like.
“We are encouraged that there was money with schools, you just have to be very careful and that if it’s a one-time shot of money, it’s like if you had $10,000 in your checking account that you have to live on every month and somebody gives you $1,000 and then you start living on that $1,000, you’re going to be in trouble,” she said. “We look at it every day. When the output reports come in, we immediately add to this.”
Some unexpected money has been withheld, however, she noted – notably excess cost aid that will not allow costs for one-on-one aids from March until June.
“The problem with that is, you have to hit a certain ceiling in order to qualify for stack money and that will push you down underneath the level for some of our kids,” she said. “Not only will we be losing money in one place, we’re probably going to lose money in another. Right now that’s looking like $66,000 for us and it probably could be more.”
This withholding also comes months after districts found out that transportation aid would not be disbursed for the same months, despite the fact that bus drivers were still logging miles to deliver technology and meals to students.
“We had lost the transportation aid and we don’t know if that’s coming back,” she said. “We just had to do a survey and put in the costs that we did have doing that.”
During her superintendent’s report, Donahue also informed the board that the district’s building committee has started work to address its five-year study.
“We just got done doing this at the elementary and at the high school and at the middle school and really you probably think that we could be done for a while,” she said. “Well, I don’t think you’re ever done taking care of your school.”
She added, “I use this example a lot with folks, but on a given day we have 2,000 people on campus or more every day. When you put that many people through bathrooms and hallways and using things, you’re going to have wear and tear.”
Even throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Donahue explained that 1,100 people are on-campus on any given day. Paired with a 20-plus year-old elementary school building, a football turf that is “at the end of its life,” and aging builders and roofs, there are still improvements to be made.
“You have to take care of your buildings,” she said. “Every year, we put these together, but one of the things we added and we’ll get into more detail, but you’re going to have to start wrapping your heads around repairs that need to be done.”
Donahue noted that the building aid ratio for the district is about 82.4%.
“Anything aidable, that’s what you would get,” she said. “It stabilizes your tax cap, you start to have your repair costs versus new or updated improvements. One of the things we’ll get into with the transportation part of the budget, but we now are trying to cycle our trucks.”
“Now is the time to get your heads wrapped around what you think we should do and what you think we shouldn’t do and get a number in your head that you think we should be going out for,” school board president Jim Butler said.
“The longer that we wait, the harder it is to change things,” he told the board. “We need to get that number solidified so we can get feet on the ground and say ‘Let’s get this going, let’s get this designed.’ It’s not only hard to change it later on, but it’s expensive to change it. We never get everything right. No one gets a project completely right. There’ll be some changes, but we want to get ahead of those. It’s time to do our homework.”