Johnstown school board adopts $38.7M budget

Property owners will see 35% tax levy increase

Scott Miller of Johnstown speaks about the Greater Johnstown School District's proposed 2019-20 budget at the Board of Education meeting Wednesday night at Johnstown High School. (The Leader-Herald/Michael Anich)

JOHNSTOWN — The Greater Johnstown School District Board of Education on Wednesday adopted a $38.7 million 2019-20 district budget, with a 35 percent tax levy increase, that will be sent to district voters May 21.

Due to fluctuating equalization rates, regular tax rates related to that levy hike will vary, the board stressed during a budget workshop at Johnstown High School. The district’s current levy is $8.6 million, and the district has a 14 percent state tax levy cap.

District officials on Wednesday night mostly discussed scenarios in which the public votes down the budget. Voters will vote from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. May 21 at JHS. A public hearing on the budget will be conducted at 6 p.m. May 14 in the high school Lecture Hall.

Superintendent Patricia Kilburn said she has been doing everything possible to explain to the public how the city school system got into a situation requiring a 35 percent tax levy increase. Another presentation is set for April 30 at 6:30 p.m. at the Johnstown High School Library.

“I’ve been doing multiple community forums,” Kilburn said.

Board President Kathy Dougherty said the district has strived to give the public “complete and accurate information,” which is most important.

Assistant Superintendent Ruthie Cook said the district’s projected fund balance at the end of last year was below the state comptroller’s recommended 4 percent of the budget.

Increasing the levy by 35 percent equates to a roughly $3 million levy increase. For a city home assessed at $100,000 it would mean a $31 per month increase on the school bill with Basic Star, $15 per month with Enhanced Star, and $44 per month with no STAR.

District officials said the school system got into this financial situation, in part, because boards of education the last 10 years adopted budgets that called for little or no tax levy increases while using district savings such as fund balance and reserves to make up for budget shortfalls.

If the budget doesn’t pass by 60 percent of voters on May 21, the board has options that include: putting the same budget before voters a second time, putting out a revised budget, or adopting a contingency budget. After a second defeat, the district would have no choice but to adopt a contingent budget in which the tax levy by law can’t be hiked.

Cook said the contingent budget is $1.9 million less than the proposed budget.

The Johnstown district would then continue to use reserves to prioritize the continuation of kindergarten and the core high school program. The district would have to make reductions to other non-mandated programs, including athletics, extracurricular activities, and non-elementary programs such as music, art and academic intervention services.

The following year — the 2020-21 school year — district officials estimate a minimum 18 percent tax levy increase would be required to continue funding kindergarten and the core high school program.

Scott Miller of Collingwood Avenue — a former board president — was the only public speaker Wednesday night. He told the board he had to publicly say something that was “bothering me.”

Miller said the district’s fund balance in the past was “underused.”

“Our fund balance was over what the state allowed us,” he said.

He said the state told the district to use more fund balance, it had no choice.

Miller said he was concerned that 78 percent of the budget — or about $29.7 million — is personnel costs that need to be looked at.

“You really have to think about it,” he said. “You’re in a crisis mode. Are your cuts proportionate to what your costs are?”

Miller said the district has to now do “hard stuff” in the future to keep its finances solvent.

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

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