ITHACA, N.Y.—A budget, unlike any previous budget before, was adopted by the Ithaca City School District Board of Education on Tuesday, moving on now to final approval during the annual community referendum next month. Some school board members will also be up for election during said referendum.

The proposed budget this year is set for $145,179,885, the result of work that started early last year as the district tried to gauge the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. It represents a rather significant increase in funding, at least relative to the normal year-over-year percentage increase, which district officials say, in part, will allow them the flexibility to explore potential learning alternatives that could facilitate learning both in-person and remotely if the situation presents itself.

There will be a budget hearing at 5:30 p.m. on May 11, with the budget vote and board election taking place a week from that day. The entire budget presentation is viewable here.

Overall, the budget represents a 6.09 percent increase over the 2020-2021 budget, which was just over 136.8 million, and is 10 percent higher than the previous academic year’s budget, which was about $131.95 million. However, an important note: of that increase to $145.1 million, several million is coming from increased federal aid which will be disbursed over the next few years.

The primary drivers of the budget, as Superintendent Dr. Luvelle Brown put it, come from the following:

  • Salary increases: $2.692 million
  • Employee benefits: $1.885 million
  • COVID-19 staffing: $1.184 million
  • COVID-19 Non-personnel: $495,889
  • BOCES: $676,582

“We started talking about this year’s budget last March and April, knowing that we had to plan for the future, and a future that has been more and more unpredictable,” Brown said.

The tax levy, or the total amount of money that the district is seeking through local taxes, is increasing 2.96 percent, higher than last year but a lower rise than the year before that. It is directly at the tax levy limit. The trends of increases the last several years can be seen below:

Luckily, as explained by the district’s Chief Operations Officer Amanda Verba, that percentage increase is being outpaced by population growth and property tax base, meaning the estimated tax rate is falling again for the 2021-2022 academic budget.

Of course, a tax rate can decrease but someone’s overall property tax bill can go up if their property has been assessed at a higher value—something that is controlled by the Tompkins County Assessment Office, not the school district. The assessment rate will be known for sure in August, according to Verba. It is still projected to fall by 0.23 percent.

“We always have growth and development, we’re very popular for people who want to come and visit here, and so there’s a lot of insulation to our community,” Verba said. “Other communities, where you’ve seen population decreases, you will see tax rates go up, when you see businesses closing, you will see tax rates go up. For us, it goes down.”

As for the total budget and where the money would come from to fund it, Verba broke it down into local property taxes, state funding and federal funding, the latter of which has significantly jumped from other years because of the last two COVID-19 relief bills. The federal funding is coming from the December and March COVID-19 relief bills: funding from the first is to be spent over two years, funding from the second is to be spent over three years.

“Our community asks and expects us to do a lot, and we are going to do that,” Brown said. “We are one of the most innovative school districts in the country, and we are going to continue to do just that, and we are calling it Learning Forward ICSD.”

While this served as an introduction of sorts, Brown and Talcott didn’t dive too deeply into the details of “Learning Forward ICSD,” though they did lay out some of the pillars that it would be built on: utilizing students as partners and leaders in learning, educator identity work, anti-racist curriculum and structures for support, which sounded like it was focused on building and using relationships outside of the district.

“We are going after what it means to make an anti-racist school district,” Brown said. A frequent refrain from Brown and board member Dr. Sean Eversley Bradwell over the last several months has been that, despite efforts otherwise, the district is still systemically racist, sexist, and discriminatory in a variety of ways, many of them subtle.

Deputy Superintendent Lily Talcott and Inclusion Officer Mary Grover detailed the initiative further, which is beginning this week with a group of about 30 educators and eight students meeting as a steering committee. Educator identity work would focus on how teachers can analyze themselves and how they’re conveying information in the classroom, assisted in the initiative by education guidance firm The Equity Consulting Group.

Dr. Goldie Muhammad inspiring some of the anti-racist curriculum work, according to Grover. Part of the goal is to de-center certain longtime hallmarks of education, such as experiences of whiteness that come with the exclusion of experiences of kids from marginalized communities. Grover also talked about addressing structures of support through mental health services for students and how to both support teachers and train them to, optimistically, notice when things are going wrong with students that the students may not be able to articulate themselves.

The budget, as Ainslie said, is not a surprise to many of the board members who have been working on it as part of the budget development committee for the last several months—Brown even said work on this proposed budget had begun about a year ago as the district prepared for a variety of scenarios regarding the pandemic.

“We are owning the fact that we are introducing to the community a budget that includes the ability to be agile,” Verba said. “We learned a lot from this past year. (…) We know that there are things that we learned that we have to continue to do that we learned during COVID. We need to ensure we have the mental health supports. We need to ensure we can do that when kids are present or when they’re present on a device. We need to ensure that staff are okay. That six percent increase that you’re seeing is trying to determine the pre-COVID way of teaching and learning and being a workplace, during COVID-19 teaching and learning and being a workplace (…) and then looking ahead. What do we want to be?”

Verba said the budget incorporates all of those thoughts, but also acknowledged that the district does not necessarily anticipate spending all of the allotted money, especially as COVID dissipates, regulations are relaxed and some parts of the COVID protocol are dismissed. In her words, a one-year budget is fairly easy—farther down the road, as they are thinking now, is more complex.

“The challenge is when you’re thinking ahead to that third year and that fourth year,” Verba said. “I mention that because it’s an important part for us to realize. As a school district, it’s our job to do long-term budget planning, not just respond to one single year.”

Surely, there will be more discussion and coverage of the budget as the weeks go on and the referendum draws closer, but it’s clear that, despite the tumult that the district went through earlier in the year, particularly surrounding Brown, he wants this budget to jumpstart a new era for the district.

“I survived school, but I was traumatized by it,” Brown said. “What this budget allows us to do is to rethink how we do business. And that is going to increase the social and emotional health of our young people. (…) What we’re talking about doesn’t really have a dollar amount, it has hearts connected to it.”

The total revenue projection, and how it compared to last year’s numbers, is shown below:

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Education & Public Health Reporter at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com