School board to hold budget public hearing Thursday

Revote on full-day kindergarten likely

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By Fran Hardy
— The Sparta Board of Education’s yearly public hearing on the school district budget for the upcoming academic year will be held Thursday night at 7:30 p.m. at Mohawk Avenue School.

There will be a new twist in this year’s proceedings.

At the board’s April 21 working session, Superintendent Dennis Tobin said that the public will first see a presentation on the tentative budget approved by the board in March, and subsequently given preliminary approval by the county superintendent’s office. This budget does not include a full-day kindergarten program and includes the use of $700,000 of the district’s banked cap to build a new track at Sparta High School.

The public will then have the opportunity to comment on and ask questions about this budget.

After that presentation, if a board member puts forth a motion to modify the budget and it is seconded, the board can then vote on an alternative budget, Tobin said.

That budget includes using the full banked cap of $1,033,645 to implement a full-day kindergarten program beginning next fall, but does not include funds to renovate the track for next year.

This option comes after three weeks of re-crunching the numbers to come up with “Budget B” so the board can reconsider their vote on full-day kindergarten.

On February 24, the board voted 5-3 against implementing full day and 6-2 in favor of realigning the schools.

But during a March work session, Board Member Frank Favichia said he thought the board should reconsider full-day kindergarten and vote again, after what he called new information and in response to public pushback after the board voted no.

The subject was again discussed at length by the board during their subsequent meetings, while the majority of public commentary urged the board to reconsider implementing a full-day program.

The board thought the procedure would be to rescind their original vote and take a new vote on full-day kindergarten. However, Tobin explained this week that there is no need to rescind their first vote. He said if the board votes to approve “Budget A,” it will not include full-day kindergarten for next fall. But if they choose to modify the budget and vote for “Budget B”, then full-day kindergarten will be funded for 2014-2015.

New numbers
When the board first considered the full-day kindergarten proposal, it included a realignment option that would put the fifth grade back at Mohawk Avenue School, move the kindergarten to Alpine School, and move the pre-kindergarten to the high school. The costs were configured with this plan and it was estimated that the recurring cost to fund the full-day kindergarten program each year would be $1.1 million.

However, under Tobin’s revised realignment plan, which places the third grade at Mohawk Avenue and the pre-kindergarten and kindergarten classes at Alpine, the new numbers reflected in “Budget B” show a 40 percent decrease in the yearly recurring cost to fund full-day kindergarten.

Board Finance Committee Chair Jack Surdoval said Monday night that the yearly cost is now estimated at $665,000.

The cost reduction is due to putting the third grade at Mohawk Avenue. If the fifth grade were placed there, certain special education staff additions would have been necessary, as well as the addition of a self-contained classroom. This is not necessary if the fifth grade stays at Helen Morgan.

Also, transportation costs will be less by eliminating the mid-day run for half-day kindergarten and eliminating the pre-kindergarten run to the high school, which would have been necessary under the original realignment plan.

The $1.3 million start-up cost to implement full-day kindergarten is still the same under “Budget B." Tobin said this will be covered by using the district’s banked cap funds of $1,033,645, which are funds that have accrued since the district’s 2011-2012 budget came in under the state’s two percent tax levy cap.

By law, the district can use the funds within three years to exceed the cap and the funds then become part of the district’s base budget. This will allow the full-day program to be funded each year.

The board can also choose the option of using around $1.5 million in Fund 30 monies, left over from the high school reconstruction project, to offset the tax impact of implementing the full-day program. These funds, according to state law, can be applied to existing debt service to lessen ongoing taxes.

Board members asked if both full-day kindergarten and the high school track could somehow be funded in “Budget B”. Tobin said that a full budget process takes at least four months and if the board had been clear about wanting to fund both from the beginning, it may have been possible to structure the entire budget with both big-ticket items included. But, he said, it was very difficult to reconfigure all the variables in such a large budget in the last three weeks to allow for the board’s possible vote change on full-day kindergarten.

Tobin said that he is in favor of implementing full-day kindergarten and using the full banked cap amount to do so, as he has recommended from the beginning. But said he is upset by the eleventh hour process, which has put his office and business administrator Linda Alvarez in a difficult position.

Richard Bladek blamed Favichia for his last minute change of heart, calling it a “knee-jerk reaction."

Favichia said that he, Bladek, and Scott Turner ran together for the board three years ago on a platform of improving district academics, beginning with the lower grades and that kindergarten is the place to start.

Surdoval said the number of capital projects that can be funded in “Budget B," which uses the entire banked cap for full-day kindergarten, will be greatly reduced. “Budget A” includes using $200,000 from the district’s capital reserve account, $300,000 from the maintenance reserve account, and $700,000 from banked cap to pay for various capital projects including the high school track,

According to the agenda for the budget hearing this week, various district maintenance projects that would be funded in “Budget A” include field drainage, parking lot repairs and restriping, replace concrete stairs and railings, sewer plant repairs, roof repairs, replacement of rooftop exhaust fans, replacement of water fountains, removal and replacement of tile and carpeting, refinishing gym floors, replacement of exterior doors, and several school security projects.

Surdoval said that voting for Budget B would represent a philosophical change in the direction of the board.

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