ITHACA,N.Y. — The annual vote for Ithaca City School District budget and the school board elections are being held by absentee ballot, due on June 9.
The vote was originally scheduled for May 19, but is being conducted via absentee ballot due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Absentee ballots can be returned either by mail or in-person to the Office of the District Clerk by 5 p.m. on Tuesday, June 9.
There are two propositions on the ballot. The first is regarding the board’s proposed budget for the 2020–21 school year, and the second is regarding the district’s decision to take funds from the 2018 Capital Reserve fund to purchase six buses, two vans and three transit vans.
The proposed 2020–21 budget is $136,842,648, a 3.7% increase from last year’s budget of $131,954,987. This is the highest increase since the 2016–17 budget to the 2017–18 budget, which was a 4.7% increase. From the 2018–19 budget to the 2019–20 budget, there was a 2.7% increase, and from the 2017–18 budget to the 2018–19 budget was a 3% increase.
The budget primarily supports salary increases for teachers, teaching aides and assistants, administrators and employees in clerical, facilities, school nutrition, transportation and school nursing, as well as employees who are not in a union. The increase also accounts for supplementary provisions to the student experience, even if classroom instruction is virtual next year. ICSD has stated that the school district continues to face fiscal challenges, which have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, board member Erin Croyle said she is confident that the proposed budget will be able to support the district amid the pandemic.
“As we all know, there is no crystal ball right now, and this is all really unprecedented,” Croyle said. “So to say there’s a plan for this and this is what we’re doing is absolutely impossible. But the money’s there and the people are there. It’s just utilizing what we have to rethink this, and it’s changing all the time.”
Amanda Verba, chief operations officer for ICSD, stressed that most of the changes that look like cuts in the budget are actually due to recoding and shifting money from one line to another.
The proposed budget includes a 2.81% tax levy — the total amount of revenue collected from property taxes — but the ICSD has stated that it anticipates a tax rate decrease. Unless one’s property has been reassessed, the amount paid in school taxes will decrease next year.
Board member Patricia Wasyliw said that the board does not know what cuts Gov. Andrew Cuomo will be imposing, and he has not announced what state aid will be for next year. Board member Ann Reichlin said this uncertainty is why the budget is fairly conservative. However, because only approximately 23% of the budget comes from state funds, she said Ithaca is in a better position than surrounding districts.
“All of the other surrounding districts have the state picking up 70 to 90 percent of the total cost,” Wasyliw said. “So although Ithaca pays a higher share, that’s going to shield us from a lot of the extremely devastating cuts that are going to happen to districts throughout the state. It’s ironically putting us in a good position. What this budget says is that we cannot spend any more than this. The levy increase is to cover the raises to our teachers that were voted on last year in a 6 year contract.”
If the budget is not approved, a revote will occur June 16, or the district will adopt a contingency budget. If the budget is not approved a second time, the district must adopt the contingency budget.
However, ICSD vice president Sean Eversley Bradwell said that there is likely not going to be enough time for a second vote to occur during this election cycle, meaning that if the budget is not approved, the district will revert to the budget from the 2019–20 fiscal year, which is a $4.8 million reduction to what is being posed before additional reduction in state aid or federal stimulus money.
“We have some significant choices to make as a community,” he said. “We believe that we put forward a budget, while again, absolutely not perfect, tries to protect the programming for young folks and tries to do so in a way that is equitable.”
Salaries and Benefits
The ICSD has not had to lay any of its instructional nor non-instructional staff during the COVID-19 pandemic, and Superintendent Luvelle Brown said that he does not anticipate a need for layoffs. Instructional staff have been receiving full wages and benefits, and essential workers in the school district have been receiving double-time wages.
The budget lines for teacher salaries have overall increased. The General Fund will support an increase of $600,000 to TAs and aides and an increase of $1,181,200 to teachers. The proposed budget also reflects increases for substitutes. The district has attributed this to this line being under-budgeted last year.
“Seventy percent of that budget is staff, people,” Robert Ainslie, ICSD board president, said. “That’s always where the predominant focus of our budget is in the staff and people and teachers and supports. … Our budget is focused on people to deliver that classroom experience to our students in the community.”
Brown’s salary has increased from $230,000 to $242,843. The budget reflects a 5.5% increase for Brown’s salary. Per Brown’s contract with the Board of Education, he receives a 2.75% salary increase each school year. His previous increase was not included in the current budget because it was passed before he received his raise, and so the budget reflects a two-year change.
“What I’m hoping we do as a community, as we’re facing an unprecedented, not just a challenge, but in some ways a catastrophe … is to elevate the conversation beyond 2.75 percent increase for an administrator or even a 4.5 percent increase for teachers, to how are we going to use the 130 million plus dollars we have in our budget to meet the needs of our learners who are going to have social, emotional health needs that we have yet to see before,” Brown said.
Members of the board addressed concerns regarding high administrative pay and defended Brown’s salary increase. Bradwell said the board will continue to assess how to consolidate administrative roles.
“Yes, we are looking at administration efficiencies,” he said. “I want to be real, folks, that will continue to take place, but focusing solely on one position and one raise is not going to solve the complex issues that we have of making sure that all of our employees are paid a living wage and figure out how best to move the district forward.”
Bradwell also said that the board has conducted benchmarks of administrators across the state, both in terms of school districts of similar size and similar budgets, and found that ICSD’s salaries were either in the middle or on the lower end.
Board member Ann Reichlin said that the strengths of the administrative team are why ICSD was so successful in its transition to online learning.
“Our administrative costs, while they stick out, they’re really, really valuable,” she said. “If you didn’t have these people trying to figure out these thorny problems and coordinating these things, it would be much, much more difficult for everybody.
No cuts are being made to instructional technology staff to ensure that there is enough funding to support distance learning for next year, should the need arise.
The proposed budget sets the Board of Cooperative Educational (BOCES) budget at $17,679,614, which is approximately 13% of the overall appropriations. Compared to 2019–20, this is an increase of $468,939, or 2.72%. The BOCES appropriations were approximately 13% of the overall appropriations last year, as well.
ICSD is reducing the number of slots in the therapeutic support programs at the Racker Center, Possibilities and Lighthouse, in order to enhance other community partnerships, including the Tompkins County Health Department. The district has increased the number of slots in Turning Point.
Additionally, positions including treasurer, technology integration specialist, dignity act services and data processing support are being decreased and will instead be incorporated through the district’s own staffing. The district also plans to conduct more in-house professional development rather than through BOCES. BOCES has also decreased administrative fees.
The district has decreased ENL funding because of current employees absorbing these responsibilities.
The district is decreasing the instructional coaching model in an attempt to put teachers back into the classrooms.
“We are so excited to have them continue to serve as leaders within their school communities while teaching our students,” ICSD stated. “We also recognize that this shift allows us to keep more educators working directly with children. Professional development will continue and the instructional coaches will play a large part internally.”
Classroom supply funds have increased by $93,391, or 5.92%.
Verba said that some supply and material funds have gone down on the proposed budget because it is unknown what items will be needed in order to sanitize buildings or take students’ temperatures during the upcoming year. Instead, some of this money has been moved to district level equipment codes because money can be moved out of the equipment line, but cannot be put in later on.
“We want to make sure we went to the public with quite robust equipment lines so that if we needed to purchase those higher cost items, we had the permissions to do so,” she said.
The athletics budget, in which equipment was previously funded by the facilities budget, has moved to be managed by the Director of Athletics and Wellness. This fund will cover sports medicine equipment, uniforms and all supplies needed for student athletes.
Five candidates are on the ballot for the Ithaca City School District school board. There are three open seats for a three-year term beginning July 1.
The current board members whose terms are expiring are Bradwell, Christopher Malcolm and Wasyliw.
Elizabeth Minor withdrew her name June 1, and any votes casted for her will not be counted.
Draffen is a program assistant at the Greater Ithaca Activities Center. She holds an Associate degree in human service from Tompkins Cortland Community College and a certificate in medical assisting from Salter College. She also has an emergency medical technician license.
Sean Eversley Bradwell (incumbent)
Bradwell has served on the board since 2009 and as chair of the Board Policy Committee since 2010. He is the current vice president of the board, and serves as a member of the Audit, Facilities, and Policy committees. He is also the BoE Liaison to Enfield Elementary School. Apart from the board, he is an assistant professor in the Department of Education at Ithaca College.
Lux is a 2017 graduate of Ithaca College and a 2013 graduate of Ithaca High School. She is now a program coordinator at The Learning Web, working with youth at schools in all districts in the county.
Christopher Malcolm (incumbent)
Malcolm has served on the board since 2011. He serves on the Finance and Human Resources committees, and is the BoE Liaison to Northeast Elementary School. Apart from the board, he is the store manager for the Ithaca Wegmans.
Patricia Wasyliw (incumbent)
Wasyliw was elected to the board in 2011. She serves on the Curriculum and Policy committees, and is the BoE Liaison to South Hill Elementary School and Ithaca High School. Apart from the board, Wasyliw is assistant dean and senior associate director of admissions in the College of Arts and Sciences at Cornell University, where she chairs the international admissions committee.