JORDAN — Rick Timbs, executive director of the Statewide School Finance Consortium, delivered a shocking prediction that Jordan-Elbridge may have to merge with another district or dissolve as early as the 2012-13 academic year.
Timbs, an expert in state education aid and school finance, was featured as part of the Jordan-Elbridge Central School District’s public budget hearing, held Tuesday at the middle school. The hearing was held in conjunction with a meet-the-candidates forum where candidates Lynnette Zelias, Lisa Long, David Gallaro and Terrence Hanchett made their cases to residents. Three board seats are up in the election.
About 180 residents listened as Timbs linked the district’s financial trouble to state aid cuts and complex formula that determine school aid. He stressed the current financial situation is not the board’s fault.
Taxpayers will vote on a $27,596,582 budget May 17. The spending plan, up 4.7 percent from the current year’s, comes with a 7.3 percent tax levy increase. If the budget is defeated, the board may put another budget up for a vote or go directly to a contingency budget, which will cap the spending increase at 1.92 percent. If the budget fails a second time, the district must operate under contingency.
Many mumblings and concerned whispers filled the room as Timbs touched on the district’s debt service schedule to pay for its current capital project. The issue had come up at several previous meetings and had been a point of contention.
Interim superintendent Larry Zacher said previously there was about $400,000 missing that should have been set aside in a capital reserve for the 2011-12 budget to make payments for the project.
Timbs backed up the statement Tuesday, saying he contacted the New York State Education Department and reviewed all relevant district documents and still did not find any evidence the correct amount of money was in the capital reserve. He said the money, which should be about $500,000 per year, was not there in 2008-09, 2009-10 or 2010-11.
“In ‘08 and ‘09, two years ago, this money wasn’t in existence and it still isn’t,” Timbs said.
He said the district would need to “raid” other funds to find the money to make capital project payments. Currently, there is about $203,000 in the debt service fund. Timbs said the number should be closer to $500,000.
Former district treasurer Anthony Scro disputed Timbs’ claim, saying he transferred the correct amount of money to the proper account himself.
“The speaker stated that the district never had the $500,000 nor the $45,000 put away for what was authorized and approved by the voters to contribute toward the $21 million capital project,” Scro wrote in an email. “This is incorrect. Both the $500,000 and the $45,000 had, in fact, been received and transferred to the capital project fund. ... It would show in the records of entries on the district’s accounting system, BudgetSense. If the transactions do not appear, the records have been tampered with.”
In addition to the discussion about debt service, Timbs built a case against the state, saying Jordan-Elbridge is getting hit particularly hard with state aid reductions.
“This is not your fault, but it is your problem,” he said. “(The state) balances their budget with your budget.”
He also stressed that the district’s use of $1.7 million from its reserves will not be sustainable next year.
“What (are you) going to do next year if (you) don’t have $1.7 million?” he said. “I’ve got to tell you, you’re not going to be able to keep that up. Want to know why? You’re going to run out of money.”
Timbs then listed some predictions that some residents said made them depressed. He predicted a major diminishment in extra-curricular activities, interscholastic athletics, field trips and non-mandated education programs like kindergarten, elementary music and art, electives and advanced placement courses.
“You will not be able to afford them,” he said grimly.
He went on to predict deep layoffs, increased class sizes, changes in the transportation system, less use of facilities, a decrease in bus and equipment purchases, closure of all or portions of buildings, consolidation of grade levels and staff and, finally, a merger with another school district.
Since a merger takes about two years, Timbs offered an even more grim fate: “So, you could simply dissolve,” he said.
He advised the district to start prioritizing.
“You can have anything you want as long as you pay for it,” he said. “If you can’t pay for it, you can’t have it.”
Staff writer Kelly Voll can be reached at 282-2239 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at CitizenVoll.