Oswego city schools to vote by mail for budget, board

The demolition of the Wilber Field grandstands, above, and other capital project work are some of the only signs of life on the campus of Oswego High School as in-person learning will not return this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  Oswego City School District officials said this week all voting for the district’s budget and Board of Education elections will be conducted by mail.

OSWEGO — The Oswego City School District’s Board of Education Tuesday unanimously approved its 2020-21 budget, balanced partially by using surplus funds from 2019-20 as the district faces an “emergency period” due to the ongoing pandemic.

The $88.5 million spending and revenue plan will now go to voter approval, done for the first time by mail. Ballots, which will include voting on the budget as well as candidates for the Board of Education, will be mailed to eligible voters the week of May 25, officials said. The deadline to return ballots is June 9.

Last year’s OCSD budget came in at $86 million and Superintendent Dr. Dean Goewey said the increases came from reductions in state aid, an increase in special education costs and a natural increase relative to collective bargaining agreements and other contracts.

“That coupled with a significant increase in special education costs and a reduction in state aid is why we were at a $1.6 (million budget gap),” Goewey said.

During a budget workshop Monday, Goewey presented the Board of Education with $760,000 in cuts and the diversion of $837,000 in surplus funds to balance the $1.6 million deficit.

The district has run a surplus of $1.3 million over the past year, Goewey said, due to fuel costs dropping and a potential “overbudgeting” of unemployment funds.

“Let’s take $800,000 of that $1.3 million and let’s use it,” Goewey said.

The remaining roughly $500,000 would then be held in reserve in the possibility the state looks for the schools to pay back some of their financial aid, Goewey said.

Goewey has during his tenure cautioned the board against using reserves to balance the budget but the “emergency period” has necessitated a temporary change in strategy.

“I’ve talked a lot over the last several years about the risk of using too much reserves and fund balance,” Goewey said. “As the community knows and the board certainly knows, in 2016 we were on the comptroller’s list of districts in risk of fiscal stress and that was because we had a longstanding practice of using significant dollars from reserves and fund balance to balance our budget. We have largely stayed away from that practice over the last five years, but I was reminded that these reserves and fund balance dollars are for a rainy day and for emergencies.

“This is an emergency period for our school district, as well as a lot of school districts.”

School buildings have been closed since March 16, and efforts to move instruction online have been hampered by the fact that many students lacked devices for connecting to their virtual classrooms.

The future of public education in New York is receiving as much attention lately as in recent memory. Several weeks ago, state officials said they would enlist the help of software tycoon Bill Gates and member of the Google team to help “reimagine education” — a line that drew heavy criticism across the partisan spectrum. Politicians hope for at least a partial bailout from Congress, which is considering a relief package that could provide money to keep teachers in classrooms, parks open and police on the streets. How much Congress and President Donald Trump agree to send is primed to be the next big battle in Washington.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said his state needs $61 billion in federal support “or we will wind up aggravating the situation” by forcing cuts to local governments.

Some of the local line reductions proposed Monday are cuts already mandated due to the COVID-19 pandemic: summer school in the middle school or driver’s education over the summer, officials said.

Other cuts include travel to conferences and other professional development, cutting $200,000 earmarked for furniture and equipment, and $60,000 with a theater company for the district’s arts in education programs.

“We made every attempt — and I think we did a pretty decent job — of keeping any reductions as far away from instructional programs, staffing or children’s programs,” Goewey said.

In a rare occurrence, the district said some taxpayers could see their bill decrease if the budget passes.

According to district budget documents, the rate of taxation per $1,000 of assessed home value will drop from $20.19 last year to $16.80 in 2020-2021. The estimated tax impact for a home assessed at $100,000 would fall from $1,405.04 to $1,084.02. Those potential savings depend on each municipality’s equalization rate, which is not controlled by the district, officials said.

“Just for informational purposes, we’re giving an average of what that tax rate would look like,” Executive Director of Business and Finance Nancy Squairs said. “So if you did the math, it wouldn’t come out at those exact rates (for individual taxpayers), because we’re just averaging all of those tax rates. You could have a different tax rate in Scriba because they have a 91 percent equalization rate compared to the city of Oswego, where their equalization rate is 100 percent.

“Basically what you see ... are estimates of that tax impact. Because our budget is lower than last year’s, taxes would go down.”

This is the second fiscal crisis Goewey has had to navigate during his term as superintendent. In his first year as top administrator in 2016, the district faced a $5 million budget gap. The longtime educator has spent more than three decades in his hometown district and will retire this July.

Voters will also decide on three new Board of Education members to each serve three-year terms. All three current members whose seats are up — Samuel Tripp, Brandon Lagoe and Brian Chetney — have declined to seek re-election.

So far, according to district officials, only Pamela Dowd and James MacKenzie have filed petitions to seek board seats. With only two candidates for three open spots, the individual who receives the most write-in votes will join Dowd and MacKenzie on the board.

Board of Education President Heather DelConte told The Palladium-Times said conducting an election through the mail presents "yet another unwanted change, as well as a significant, unexpected cost to the district."

"The process is cumbersome and we truly appreciate staff working to make it a success," said DelConte. "With ballots coming right to voters’ homes, accompanied by convenient, stamped return envelopes, it is our hope that every eligible voter participates and takes full advantage of this privilege."

Due to the COVID-19 restrictions, all voting on the budget and board candidates will be conducted by absentee, officials said. Ballots can also be requested by calling the district clerk’s office at 315-341-2001.

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