Whitaker: District Weathered The COVID-19 Storm
Two months ago, Dr. Kevin Whitaker did not think the Jamestown Public Schools District would be adding anything new to the district in the 2021-22 school year.
Millions of additional dollars in federal aid and the promise of millions more in state aid have changed that. The 2021-22 budget approved by the Jamestown Public Schools Board of Education not only doesn’t cut programs, it adds some new positions that will help the district and students through the full reopening of school in September.
“At the start of the budget process, honestly, I was thinking that we would have to eliminate a program, that we would be losing programs,” Whitaker said. “So what I’m most happy isn’t something shiny and new, although I am very proud that we have two new psychologists potentially and the social worker support for our students’ mental health as well as our community navigator and our community literacy focus, I’m just happy that we have our programs. (I’m happy) that we sailed through that part of the storm and that we didn’t sink. We kept it afloat and we continue to do that, and plan to continue doing that for three, five and seven years in the future.”
By February, Whitaker was fairly certain that the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act approved by the federal government in December that provided $9,345,9577 to the school district would place the district on sound financial footing for at least 2021-22. He was unsure of what would happen in 2022-23 and beyond.
That was the fiscal cliff Whitaker referred to — how does the state replace the federal money that was balancing local school districts’ budgets.
A second federal stimulus bill approved in March that provides roughly $10,500,000 to the district over a five-year period will fill some of that spending, and now the state Legislature has approved a full phase-in of state Foundation Aid to schools.
“I have more faith in the federal money even though it has to flow through the state,” Whitaker said. “They’ve been pretty circumspect around making sure the state can only put its hands on a small amount of that. I also agree there is a problem historically with New York state making promises and then failing to deliver on those promises. Our plans moving into the future, three-year, five-year, seven-year plans, would take that into account. Brittnay (Spry, district business executive) talked about ForeCast5 analytics. What that is is not so much like a consulting group; it’s more of a software program where you can enter certain expectations and predictions and it throws out ‘if those are the predictions, this is what it would look like.’ That gives us a much more accurate picture to be able to make judgments three, five and seven years out.”
The 2021-22 Jamestown Public Schools budget includes a community navigator, two new school psychologists, an increase in contracted social workers, a reading and literacy coordinator, music equipment, music travel, athletic equipment, athletic uniforms and technology equipment.
The local tax levy will be $14,641,567 — the same it has been since 2016-17. The budget still includes the use of $2 million from the district’s fund balance and $775,000 from district reserve funds. State aid from the first iteration of the budget has increased form $63,932,908 to $70,104,178. The capital budget decreases $119,803 due to a decrease in debt service and shift of security officers from the program budget to the capital budget. The district’s administrative budget is decreasing by $204,444 despite adding two new administrative positions, with the new spending offset by the retirement of the district’s chief operating officer and a decrease in BOCES capital expenses.
It’s a far cry from the budget district officials started with. The fiscal cliff is still there — but it may be more of a fiscal hill.
“If we assume that the federal money come through, which we assume it will, and if we assume that the foundation aid continues to come through as they’ve promised, it’s less steep,” Whitaker said. “There’s no doubt about it. We have to plan to assume that it may be steeper than it will actually be. That way we’re safe, we’re in a good position and can maintain programs for kids. We can maintain our essential mission and we can also serve our taxpayers and community in terms of fiscal responsibility that we have.”