APW

Pictured left is Altmar-Parish-Williamstown Central School District Superintendent Eric Knuth, who presented the budget in front of district residents ahead of the June 18 re-vote date

PARISH — With a budget revote date set for June 18, officials from the Altmar-Parish-Williamstown Central School District are not ruling out the possibility of adopting a contingency budget that could exclude athletic and other extracurricular programs.

On May 21, district residents rejected the previously proposed 2019-2020 Altmar-Parish Williamstown Central School District (APW) $32.8 million operational budget proposition in 269-215 vote.

The week after, officials from the Board of Education summoned a special meeting where they doubled down on the proposition, attributing the budget’s shortcomings to miscommunication of accurate figures to residents. 

The only amendment to the proposition came in the form of an increase of 1 percent to the tax levy — the total amount that a school district raises each year in taxes from all property owners — “not to exceed $60,000.”

During a public hearing this week, APW officials addressed concerns with the budget, listing “identifying irregularity, errors or confusion,” and addressing the “abrupt departure of the district’s school business official.”

APW Superintendent Eric Knuth said the board sought consulting from independent advisors and resources from fellow education advocates to shore up miscalculations and help with budgeting for school years to come.

Knuth said Mike Sheperd, assistant superintendent at the Center for Instruction, Technology and Innovation (CiTi BOCES), was brought in as backup.

“[Sheperd] came in and helped us verify and make sure that everything that we thought we knew was accurate,” Knuth said. “He helped us make sure that the quality of information that we put out to the public was consistent with what the board promised.”

At the public hearing, Sheperd highlighted the use of a reserve account to offset costs in the capital portion of the budget, which includes operation and maintenance, employee benefits and serial bonds.

According to Sheperd, money from the debt reserve and fund balance accounts totaling $880,194 was allocated to pay off some of the costs designated to the capital portion of the budget. 

In response, a resident from Altmar questioned whether officials were able to transfer money from reserves without voter approval. A response from board officials was unclear.

The Palladium-Times reached out to CiTi BOCES Superintendent Chris Todd for clarification.

“That can be done by action of the board and in fact there's very few (accounts) that require a referendum,” Todd said of the accounts used by APW. “Most of them are all at the discretion of the local control of the school board.” 

A recent audit from the New York State Comptroller’s office called some of APW’s reserve accounts “overfunded.”

“The debt service fund and most reserve funds are not being used, and the repair, retirement, insurance and tax certiorari reserves are overfunded. The debt service fund and overfunded reserves had balances totaling more than $15.5 million as of June 30, 2018,” states the comptroller’s report.

The audit recommended the district “analyze reserve fund balances and ensure they are maintained at reasonable levels.”

Knuth said low tax increases are a main reason why the district does not tap into reserve accounts.

“We've talked about all the time that we need to reduce the budget, we need to cut spending,” Knuth said. “But the other side of the budget that hasn't been addressed in 11 years is revenue and you can't do this indefinitely. You can't provide more for the kids while reducing taxes. Taxes have been reduced over 30 percent over the last 11 years.”

Officials at this week’s public hearing also unspooled the potential chain of events if voters were to reject the budget a second time.

Knuth explained that a contingency budget — defined as “expenses necessary to provide the minimum services legally required to operate and maintain school buildings and the educational program” — is a legitimate option.

Items such as athletic and summer enrichment programs, robotics, archery, music programs could be on the chopping block if a contingency budget is adopted, according to district officials.

During the presentation, Knuth also foisted some of the blame for the school’s financial situation on APW’s former school business official, Victor Holl. Holl retired earlier this year and Knuth called his departure “abrupt.”

However, in a Wednesday interview with The Palladium-Times, Holl said the superintendent’s comment were an “inaccurate portrayal” and said he elected to use his vacation time until his scheduled retirement — which he said he announced to the board with seven months of anticipation. 

“My contract requires me to give six months notice,” Holl said. “I gave them seven months notice. I submitted my formal letter of resignation for the purpose of retirement in December, and I received an official written acknowledgment from the superintendent on Dec. 20, 2018. My retirement was approved by the board of education at their regular meeting on Jan. 10, 2019. It was absolutely official that I was absolutely retiring.”

Holl also pointed to a clause in his contract awarding him vacation time on a “use it or lose it” basis.

“The contract given to me by the board and the superintendent contains a clause awarding me vacation,” Holl said. “It's a very standard clause, but it also states must use it or lose it and that I won't be reimbursed for it. I made a written request for vacation time and my vacation request was approved in writing by the superintendent.” 

The budget re-vote is scheduled for June 18. The polls are located at the APW District Office conference room and will be open from 12 p.m. to 9 p.m

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