Friday, December 14, 2012

RCSD faces $50 million budget gap

Posted By on Fri, Dec 14, 2012 at 9:42 AM

Rochester schools Superintendent Bolgen Vargas last night presented board members with a rough outline of his budget plan for the 2013 to 2014 school year. And it’s going to be another financially tough year for the district.

For starters, the board approved a $705 million budget for the current year, but the district has operated on a $726 million budget due to an influx of grant funding. To get somewhere close to the $705 million operating budget for next year, Vargas has to close about a $50 million gap.

At last night’s board meeting, Vargas told board members it was possible, and that he has no plans to cut music, arts, or sports programs. And there was no mention of cutting teachers.

But this is only the beginning of the budgeting process and Vargas’s numbers are based on some strong assumptions.

For example, Vargas is planning on about a 7 percent increase in combined forms of state aid. That could be ambitious considering Albany is confronting billions in recent storm damages to the New York City region. State lawmakers are pushing Washington for disaster relief funding, but there are reports that some officials in Washington are flinching at the costs.

Vargas is also counting on more than $6 million in efficiency savings and $15 million in attrition and retirement to help close the gap. He plans to ask the Rochester Teachers Union for $5 million in concessions.

But Vargas’s savings from efficiencies and attrition are strained by increases in just about all of the district’s expenses. The biggest increase is a 37 percent jump in teacher retirement costs. Non-teaching retirement and health insurance costs have also shot up.

Vargas noted that more than $36 million of the district’s budget goes directly to charter schools.

“This will continue to go up,” he said.

Vargas framed his budget around the district’s undeniable academic problems: 55 out of the district’s 60 schools are either not meeting state performance standards or are at risk of lowered performance.

And the district’s attendance problems continue.

“I cannot make a promise that we’re going to improve, when you’ve already got 4,000 students missing 10 or more days of school,” Vargas said.

And the district will expand the school day in eight more schools next year, while continuing to implement the new teacher evaluation plan.

Vargas’s presentation did not go into great detail about next year’s budget, and he concluded by repeating that the budget may need adjustments.

The full budget will be presented to the community at a series of public forums after the first of the year, and a final version will be presented to the board for approval in March.

The city school district’s budget also requires City Council’s approval.

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