No Tax Increase For City School District

Pictured is Bret Apthorpe, JPS district superintendent. P-J photo by John Whittaker

There will be no local property tax levy increase for Jamestown Public Schools District taxpayers as long as state education aid is approved at projected levels.

Bret Apthorpe, district superintendent, and Lisa Almasi, district chief operating officer, discussed the first draft of the proposed budget with district board members Tuesday. The $89,682,678 proposed budget is a 4.01 percent increase in spending from the 2018-19 budget. The budget increases spending without increasing taxes by using $2.1 million from the district’s fund balance as well as a $568,067 allocation from the Retirement Contribution Reserve fund. The budget also assumes a 2.5 percent increase in state aid from what was proposed in January by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, though district officials say they are confident in that projection given discussions they have had with various state officials.

Board members are expected to vote on the budget at their April 16 meeting, though the figures won’t change much from those discussed Tuesday as long as the state budget is approved with the required 2.5 percent state aid increase. If aid remains at the levels in Cuomo’s budget proposal, Apthorpe said the board could be required to make between $249,010 and $1,245,050 in spending depending on how much aid the district receives.

Salaries and benefits total $60,474,484 of the district’s $89,682,678 proposed budget.

“Personnel is by far the biggest cost,” Apthorpe said. “While we worked with the Finance and Budget Committee about what a draconian picture would look like, we opted not to get into the details of that because we don’t want to scare people. It really is draconian when you start talking about cuts the size of that. We spent a lot of time going through what those scenarios might look like, but we thought it best to be realistic and not go through this scary exercise. Let’s go through what might be a more rational look at what ought to be in this political environment and work from that. It’s easier to work down.”

The budget proposal does eliminate 10.5 positions, though only two positions are being cut through layoffs. There were four positions in the 2018-19 budget that haven’t yet been filled and will not be included in the 2019-20 budget.

A part-time intern’s position will be eliminated and four staff positions that have come open this year won’t be filled in next year’s budget.

“The committee was very passionate about abiding by the goals the board had approved earlier in the year,” Apthorpe said. “It was also very passionate about keeping any reductions the furthest away from kids. That’s what we believe we’re going to be talking about tonight. It’s a balanced budget where if there are any reductions of any sort they’re the furthest away from kids.”

Despite cutting some positions, Apthorpe said there won’t be much of an impact on class sizes. A chart compiled by the district shows the average class size, according to actual daily attendance averages, will remain at 17 in kindergarten through second grades, increase from 17 to 18 children per class in third and fourth grades, go from 21 to 22 students per class in fifth and sixth grades, remain unchanged at 19 students per class in seventh and eighth grades and decrease from 20 to 18 students per class in ninth through 12th grades. Apthorpe said there are some age groups that have anomalies with more than the usual number of students or fewer students than normal that allows the district to right-size classes next year.

“With right-sizing, you have an addition of a teacher in one place and a reduction of a teacher somewhere else,” Apthorpe said. “It’s not just a carte blanch, ‘We have to find X amount of teachers to lose.’ It’s rather if we go on down through and right-size these classes will it come out to be more FTE or less FTE. Now, I can tell you, going back to my earlier soap box speech, if we had (an additional) $8 million I’d be sending you lots of FTEs — literacy specialists, literacy intervention specialists, reading specialists, but I digress,”

Christine Schnars, board member, asked Apthorpe if those class size statistics change the number of courses offered at Jamestown High School, mentioning specifically Advanced Placement courses that have between eight and 10 students enrolled. Apthorpe said the district tries to have 15 students enrolled in a course before offering the course, though some courses don’t reach that level of enrollment. The superintendent said he wants to see more students enrolled in the district’s Advanced Placement courses in the coming years.

“If we go back to the draconian idea of a budget we would probably have to have those tougher conversations,” Apthorpe said. “However, we’re also on the beginning of a transformational change here at Jamestown where we aren’t decreasing enrollment in AP courses but increasing it — by a lot. We need to stick to these budget directives that we have on student programming, that we have on summer literacy and that we have on Success Academy and be very intentional about engaging kids who are disengaged. … The paradigm has changed on AP courses. It used to be, when I was a teacher, you had to have your very best coming in. The paradigm today is anyone who intends to go to college, the goal is you get them into the AP class and by the time they’re done with your class they’re good to go.”

Schnars also asked about how class sizes could be affected by the district’s opening of the Success Academy in the former Rogers Elementary School building. Apthorpe said the district has enough staff to teach all of the students that are enrolled even though roughly 1,700 of the students aren’t coming to class each day. The Success Academy will be staffed by shifting existing teachers and staff from their existing buildings to the Success Academy rather than hiring an entirely new staff for the Success Academy.

“If you think about it, we’re already fully staffed,” Apthorpe said. “We just had 1,700 of our kids not come to school. So we’re taking our full staff and reallocating them to start getting our kids to come to school. As the Success Academy becomes successful, you should see those numbers go up as those people come back. The Success Academy is not meant to be another place forever for kids, it’s meant to re-engage kids who aren’t coming to school and have them come back to school and be successful.”

The budget also includes a new entrance at Fletcher Elementary School. The $100,000 project will retain the look and feel of the existing school entrance while making the entrance more secure. Jamestown High School underwent a similar project this year with Persell Middle School next on the list to have entry work done once Persell is finished. The project will cost $100,000, but only $2,000 from local taxpayers since 98 percent of the work is paid with state aid money.

Board members also unanimously approved a resolution to purchase school buses at a maximum estimated cost of $873,500 to be paid over five years. The proposition will be placed on the ballot to be approved by the public on May 21.