Johnstown School District Officials contemplate $4M tax levy increase

Greater Johnstown School District Assistant Superintendent Ruthie Cook gives a budget workshop presentation to the Board of Education Thursday night at Johnstown High School. (The Leader-Herald/Michael Anich)

JOHNSTOWN — Greater Johnstown School District officials said Thursday night that to “fully fund” existing district programs, they may need to increase the district’s current tax levy by more than $4 million.

The district had a $1.2 million budget gap for the 2018-19 budget, but could face a $4.6 million gap for 2019-20.

Superintendent Patricia Kilburn and Assistant Superintendent Ruthie Cook provided a tough assessment of finances related to the district’s 2019-2020 budget to the Board of Education Thursday night at Johnstown High School.

Kilburn said the board may set the next levy March 7 after creating goals for levy growth, identifying program priorities, and gaining “feedback from the community.” District residents will vote May 21 on the next budget.

Cook led Thursday night’s budget workshop, and the next one is set for 5:30 p.m. Wednesday in the JHS library.

“We looked at where the money is,” Cook said.

She noted that revenue from the current levy contained in the district’s $35.7 million 2018-19 district budget approved last June services four main areas: core grades one through eight; mandated services; administration; and maintenance.

During the workshop, administrators illustrated how with the district’s current tax levy, it can support several programs, but falls short of funding its $4.4 million core high school program.

Following the meeting, the district issued a news release indicating that over the past six years, the district relied on fund balance — unrestricted reserves the district was using to offset the local tax levy — to keep property taxes lower than neighboring school districts. But the release said increasing the current levy by an additional figure of more-than $4 million would “put Johnstown more in line with neighboring school districts in terms of the local tax levy as a percentage of the adjusted gross income of district residents.”

Cook said the Johnstown district’s tax levy is about $8.6 million, but would have to increase to $12.6 million to keep up with neighboring districts.

She said Johnstown has a formula of 24 percent tax levy and 76 other revenue funding its budget. She said some other area districts have a formula of 35 to 41 percent tax levy, 59 to 65 percent other revenue.

The release said the district is in “early stages” of planning a community forum on the budget. Residents can also call (518) 762-4611; and more information will be posted on the district website — johnstownschools.org.

Cook told board members she wants them to answer two vital questions: What should the levy be?, and What programs should the district provide to kids? She said the board on Wednesday will discuss what it is trying to achieve, including a discussion about unfunded mandates and program “priorities” for students.

Kilburn noted that there are four elective units out of 22 credits that are required for graduation. She said the district can open up the curriculum for additional electives, but “that costs money” in the budget.

Cook also noted three years each of math and science is required, but the Johnstown district offers one extra year of each.

On state aid, Cook said: “We know that’s probably not increasing very much.” She noted the state apparently has a budget gap of $2 billion.”

Kilburn said the state’s Foundation Aid is based on enrollment, and the Johnstown aid is based on numbers from 2009. She said Johnstown’s enrollment, however, has dropped by 303 students in the past 10 years. She said if it was based on truer numbers, the district could be seeing a $1 million aid loss.

“Our state aid is not going to grow,” the superintendent said. “We hope it doesn’t go the other way.”

Kilburn said the district in the past relied on fund balance to help fund its core programs. She said past boards of education didn’t want to increase the levy because there were reserves to back it up. But she said that is not a good strategy now.

On a positive note, Cook said the district was able to file quicker documentation for its capital projects this year, which could result in more building aid this year than expected.

Michael Anich covers Johnstown and Fulton County news. He can be reached at manich@leaderherald.com.

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