Garrison School Plans to Dig Deep Into Reserves

Discussion of when school district may need tax-cap override from voters

By Lily Gordon

The Garrison school district will need to spend as much as a third of its reserve funds — more than $900,000 — to meet its 2017-18 budget, according to a preliminary discussion at the Jan. 18 school board meeting.

The estimated 2017-18 budget is $10,697,839, up 3.9 percent from this year’s budget of $10,297,960. The increase is mainly due to a district plan to hire a full-time reading teacher and full-time aide, as well as higher health care costs, according to Sue Huetter, the district’s business administrator.

“There’s not much in that budget that can be cut, unless we’re cutting people or programs,” she told the board. “There’s not a lot of fluff. The fluff went away a long time ago.”

Board Member David Gelber labeled the situation “fairly extreme.”

However, using money from reserve funds is not unusual for Garrison. In recent years, the district has drawn between $500,000 and $600,000 from its savings each year. “But we haven’t used all of it,” said Huetter. “Last year we didn’t draw down on the reserves; we were actually able to put some money back.”

There are a number of variables that will still affect the final budget for 2017-18, she said, such as taxes, health care costs and eighth-grade students’ high school selections. For each Garrison student who elects to attend private high school — and eight to 10 plan to do so, according to Principal John Griffiths — the budget will be reduced by roughly $14,000 because Garrison will not have to pay tuition to Haldane or James O’Neill high schools.

There were murmurs of a budget override, in which the board would ask voters to allow it to increase property taxes more than the tax cap (more than 60 percent of voters must approve such as a measure), but the board seemed to think it was too early to discuss such a move. In 2016, 36 of New York’s nearly 700 school districts attempted an override; 28 were successful  and eight failed.

Huetter said the board would likely have to call for an override vote at some point because the reserves won’t last forever and “our hands are being tied by the state” with the tax cap. The cap was 0.12 percent last year; for 2017-18 the state has set the maximum increase at 1.26 percent, which gives districts more breathing room.

In other business…

  • In addition to its plans to hire a reading specialist, the district also would like to have more professional development for its staff so it can create a cohesive program, said Superintendent Laura Mitchell. The district has hired consultants from Words of Advice Literacy to run workshops with staff starting this month.
  • The results of state-mandated water testing found that 16 of 59 potable sources at the Garrison School contain more than the state’s legal limit of 15 parts per billion of lead, Mitchell said. These sources, mainly restroom faucets, do not include any water fountains or the nurse’s office. However, one source that initially showed 221 ppb was retested and showed less than 1 ppb, causing the board to question the accuracy of the original results. Non-potable sources have been labeled, and Facilities Director Dick Timmons will continue to investigate the source of the lead. Well water tested below 15 ppb, leading Timmons to believe the lead source is the pipes or faucets.
  • The board plans to host a drug awareness roundtable at 7 p.m. on March 28 to discuss Garrison residents’ concerns.