Budget Q&A for June 19 vote

Q: What is the proposed District budget increase and associated tax impact?

A: The proposed School District budget increase is 4.14%, and the projected tax levy increase is 2.231% over the current year. The final tax rate will be determined this fall when New Rochelle’s city tax roll is set. The levy increase falls within the state tax cap, which is designated by the state formula as 2.231% for New Rochelle. Districts have different state caps based on the state formula.

Q: How would the budget affect my school tax rate and annual school tax bill?

A: The budget would increase the tax rate an estimated 2.75 percent. That would result in an increase in the annual tax bill of $335.95 for a home with a market value of about $695,000, the city median (based on the average home assessment in the city of $16,000.) The new tax rate would be $785.72 per $1,000 of assessed value.

That’s an increase of $21 over the current rate of $764.72 per $1,000.

That means the tax bill for a home assessed at the city average would be $12,571.52, up from $12,235.57 this year. Owners of less expensive homes would see smaller increases and lower bills; more expensive homes would generate larger increases in the annual tax bill.

Q: Why did debt service increase more than $3.3 million?

A: Much of the debt service – $3.3 million – is a function of payments coming due on the first two phases of construction being funded by the sale of $106.5 million in bonds. The two phases cost $51 million combined. That $3.3 million is revenue-neutral as essentially all of it is covered by state building aid.

Q: How has community input influenced the development of the 2018-2019 School District budget?

A: As requested, this budget maintains existing programs, supports ongoing professional development, invests in social-emotional supports, and adds needed teaching positions. It also allows for a deeper investment in safety and security measures, which will be determined from the security audit report and the Task Force on Reducing Violence in the Lives of Children and Youth recommendations. The budget includes an additional $200,000 in expenditures for safety, security and student supports. Based on results of the initial budget vote and input from New Rochelle residents, the District and the Board of Education found areas to reduce the tax levy by $3.4 million to meet the tax cap.

Q: How is New York State affecting New Rochelle’s budget plans?

A: The residents of New Rochelle are in a much better position with school finances than just a few years ago. However, this School District faces the same daunting challenges as other school districts across the state. Generally speaking, school districts are facing rising fixed costs that are outpacing slower revenue growth (slower growth in revenues from the state coming in the form of collected state taxes), which puts pressure on the quality of a school district’s credit rating. As a result, many school districts are in the unfortunate position of spending down their fund balances.

Q: What plans are in place to address the safety and security of students and staff?

A: This spring, the School District has received recommendations from the Task Force on Reducing Violence in the Lives of Children and Youth. There will be a full review by the District and Board of Education who will then put forward a plan of implementation. Also, this summer, the School District will receive recommendations from the security assessment performed by Guideposts Solutions, a global security consulting firm. The District and Board of Education will implement recommendations as necessary.

Q: What plans are in place to address the facilities and maintenance aspects of our physical school community?

A: The $106.5 million capital bond, which was approved by New Rochelle voters in May 2016, is allowing us to continue to correct many of the health and safety issues that have existed in our school buildings. This District needed this type of infusion of capital funding – rather than simply handling it through the annual operational budget – to address the many necessary, long-delayed and age-related repairs in these buildings.

Q: How was the 2018-2019 budget created and what are the advantages to the District of utilizing zero-based budgeting?

A: The 2018-19 budget has been developed using zero-based budgeting principles as the current District administration has done the last few years. It allows for greater opportunities to most efficiently allocate resources and coordination among District professionals to support the District’s educational goals and mission. The initial budget that surpassed the tax cap met these goals and nearly all of these have been maintained in the new budget as the District reduced the initial budget by $3.4 million.

Q: Is there money set aside to improve school culture and social-emotional learning?

A: The School District is exploring new programs that will complement its current work in the areas of schoolwide, classroom, individual and community strategies that create a safe and positive school climate, improve peer relations, and increase awareness of and reduce the opportunities for bullying behavior. Its exploration includes anti-bullying programs that offer additional activities in schools. It is implementing the Safe Schools Ambassadors Program, an approach to improving school climate that relies on changing social norms using the power of students to stop bullying and violence.

Q: Where does the District stand with implementing its Chromebooks program for students?

A: The District will continue to expand its Chromebook program with the eventual goal of providing every student with access to a device during the school day. The District currently has 8,200 Chromebooks for student use daily.

Q: How does the District’s credit rating become part of its budget equation?

A: In the last few years, New Rochelle has improved its credit ratings based on a strong management team, sound fiscal practices and building up general fund reserves. Utilizing those reserves will do two things: 1) Deplete a fund balance that can be tapped when the economy turns downward, and 2) lower the District’s credit rating. A lower quality credit rating means higher interest rates and, ultimately, higher borrowing costs for the District. So far, our stronger credit rating is projected to save taxpayers an estimated $500,000.

Q: Please explain why cost-per-pupil is important?

A: Showing New Rochelle residents expenditure per pupil is important because it is an indicator of how efficient the School District is in educating our children and utilizing the money the District receives from taxpayers. This number needs to be looked at in comparison to the average per-pupil expenditure. It’s a point of information when people consider the value proposition being gained for their tax dollars by the School District. It is a strong argument that residents are getting high value for their tax dollars when considering the quality that the District is delivering, the competitiveness that we have with our neighbors, while our comparative per-pupil spending is lower.

Q: Why are so many budget codes allocated to a location Districtwide (code 39) rather than to building locations?

A: The location coding to Districtwide instead of to schools in many, if not most, instances is deliberate and beneficial to everyone. In fact, we have deliberately moved funds from school codes to Districtwide codes, at the request of principals and in the interest of equity. Districtwide budgeting and procurement have been especially helpful since we first launched our theory of action about instructional improvement in the spring of 2015. Previously, schools were determining their own approaches and procuring their own materials with funds allocated directly to their budgets. The principals then decided that funds related to curriculum materials and professional development would be better leveraged as a district, since all schools were going to be using the same consistent and coherent approach. We were then able to negotiate better pricing for the materials and professional development used by the schools in reading, writing, mathematics, and academic intervention. The materials were ordered centrally, relieving the schools of the burden of negotiating with the vendor, ordering and procuring their own curriculum materials in these areas, which had been the prior approach. Selections were made as a team, with high levels of buy-in from all schools, and delivery of materials went right to the schools. Likewise, professional development to support the new approaches were procured by central, and scheduled in collaboration with the schools as a way to build cohesion, so that grade levels across the District from various schools learn together. This had the positive effect of building cohesion around a Districtwide approach, keeping the principals as decision makers within a team structure, and absorbing the logistical burden centrally, relieving the schools so that more time could be focused on the students. Another example of the an area that is better to budget Districtwide than school-by-school is computer-aided instruction. The majority of the funds in this area are enterprise licenses and software that are used Districtwide. Similar to the curriculum areas, the selections for programs and software are made by collaborative teams that include every school. Central negotiation of pricing leverages economy of scale and relieves schools of logistical burdens. We are also then able to make comparisons between BOCES procured services, which are aidable, and other vendors, as a district. When goods and services are procured centrally, there are cost benefits from economy of scale. To make it work for equity, the distribution of the goods and services has to be conducted in a way that supports all schools, especially schools that have greater needs, and this has been our mindset and approach. All this said, there may still be some lines that are coded Districtwide out of accounting convenience that we could in future budgets more accurately and transparently code to school locations. In the meantime, please know that while doing so creates school-level discretion, it also involves selection and procurement logistics for the schools. 

Q: Can there be more transparency with the budget, including showing how funds would be distributed among schools?

A: The proposed budget, with extensive supplemental information, is available on the District website, www.nred.org. Many costs are broken down by school, including instructional salaries, textbooks, computer equipment and supplies and materials such as copy paper, crayons and glassware for science laboratories. Staffing levels and projections are also posted on the site. An example of a cost that cannot be broken down by school is special education because it is a Districtwide service.

The budget, as constructed, allows the flexibility to allocate resources where they are needed among all schools.

Since 2015, the budget process has become far more transparent than in the past. This is evident from various items, including:

1) Vigorous zero-based budget process resulting in a zero-based budget document that is available to the public.

2) Multiple community meetings open to the public and live-streamed for those who could not attend.

3) Lengthy public budget presentations prepared by the administrators and staff members who actually prepared the various sections of the budget (i.e. assistant superintendents, directors, principals, etc.)

Further, the members of the public received a detailed budget newsletter and six-day notice of the June 19 budget vote in the mail. The newsletter is also available on the website.

As stated many times in public, our efforts to build a stronger and more transparent budget process are a multi-year initiative.

Q: Why is the tax rate increase larger than the tax levy increase?

A: The tax levy is the total amount of money that the District needs to raise in property taxes. That obligation is shared among all owners of taxable properties in the city – houses, commercial buildings and so on. As individual property owners successfully argue for the city to lower their assessments – the value assigned the property for tax purposes – that owner’s share of the obligation is reduced and shifted to the remaining properties. As a result of reduced assessments, the city’s tax base – the sum of all taxable assessments – is projected to shrink by the time taxes are collected to support the 2018-19 budget. Specifically, the tax base is projected to decline by $1.27 million, or about 0.5 percent. A smaller tax base means a higher tax rate is needed to raise the same amount of money.

Q: What positions are being added for the 2018-2019 school year?

A: Proposed new positions address pressing student needs. They include 2.1 English as a New Language teacher FTEs (Albert Leonard 1, Isaac E. Young .6, Ward .5); three special education teachers (one each at the high school, Albert Leonard, Isaac E. Young); and one special education teaching assistant and one special education aide (both at the high school).

Q: Will there be additional counseling services?

A: The budget provides for additional positions to provide social emotional supports for students and families, providing four new school counselors at New Rochelle High School (one in each house).

Q: Is there money set aside to improve school culture and social-emotional learning?

A: The School District is exploring new programs that will complement its current work in the areas of schoolwide, classroom, individual and community strategies that create a safe and positive school climate, improve peer relations, and increase awareness of and reduce the opportunities for bullying behavior. Its exploration includes anti-bullying programs that offer additional activities in schools. It is implementing the Safe Schools Ambassadors Program, an approach to improving school climate that relies on changing social norms using the power of students to stop bullying and violence.

Q: Will there be a re-registration of students?

A: Yes. The rising ninth-graders will be registered this summer, before beginning their first year at New Rochelle High School in September. The remaining grades will be re-registered over the coming school year. The District has named Dr. Charles Coletti, former superintendent of the Port Chester schools, to oversee the process. Dr. Coletti is well-versed in re-registration, having overseen the process in the Port Chester schools.