Each year, the city council and county legislature take weeks to pour over the multi-million dollar budgets they are responsible for approving. It’s one of the most important jobs they are elected to do. They often have to deal with uncertain revenue projections from a number of sources, some of which have to be changed last minute. While the school district budget has it’s own unique intricacies, I thought for sure that members of the Greater Amsterdam School District Board of Education would have at least some reasonable amount of time to study, research, and question the proposed district budget before approving it for final vote by the public.
Unfortunately, that’s not the case. After asking several district officials, it appears that the board won’t see a complete, line-item budget for the 2021-2022 school year until Wednesday April 21, at the same meeting where, according to the agenda, they will be voting on it.
Based on listening to public board meetings and budget presentations over the past few months, my impression is the entire budget is essentially being crafted by administration officials with occasional input from board members along the way. The superintendent and business official have made overview presentations at several meetings, and fielded questions from board members. But there’s been very little detailed “nuts and bolts” discussion such as what I’m used to seeing the city council engage in.
That the administration is putting the budget together isn’t the problem. At the city and county level, the first version of the budget is prepared by the mayor/executive and the controller/treasurer. However, once that version is completed and turned over to the council/legislature, the document is also made available to the public.
So with the district situation, not only will the board not have any significant time to study the budget before the vote, neither will the public.
On March 24 I tried to obtain some sort of draft version of the budget by contacting Lorrie Schell, clerk of the board, not knowing exactly what to label what I was requesting. I asked, “Before the board votes on the budget that then goes up for a public vote, there must be some version of the budget they are looking at in order to decide whether to vote for it or not, correct? So that’s what I’m looking for – whatever version the board uses to make their decision, that’s what I’d like a copy of. Thanks!”
Her reply was, “The tentative budget, which shows the line items, will be presented to the BOE to approve at the April 21st meeting. After it has been approved, you will be able to get a copy.”
Colleen DiCaprio, school business official, also wrote “The board typically/traditionally receives the tentative budget in detail in April and this falls on April 21st this year. I did not present them with a line item budget yet as there are areas and items that are changing and being revised. More will be subject to change once we have the details of the State budget which hopefully will pass on time by April 1st. I do have an approximation by areas that is attached but this again, has not been presented to the BOE yet. I have attached for your reference.”
DiCaprio attached a 2-page draft summary of totals for major categories of accounts, which is useful, but far from what I was asking for.
Following up more recently on April 20 with Dr. Nellie Bush, who is the chair of the board, I asked two questions, the first was “On what date did the board receive a complete, line-item detail budget to review for the upcoming vote on April 21?”
Her reply to that question was, “I have forwarded your first question to the Superintendent, Richard Ruberti, and to our Business Manager, Colleen DiCaprio for the answer to your question #1.”
So the board chair has to defer to the administration to tell me when the board will receive the complete budget?
DiCaprio responded and wrote, “The overall expenditure budget was still in discussion and other items worked on up until yesterday. It is certainly a fluid process as one might imagine with well over 700 line items.”
Folks, I don’t see how this is acceptable. Even if the board engages in a marathon session on Wednesday, without having the proper time to go over, research, and question the proposed budget how will the board’s vote amount to anything more than a rubber stamp on the administration’s work? Is that how it’s supposed to be?
The idea that last minute changes have to be made is certainly no obstacle to the process with the city and county. We elect the board to represent the public and make informed choices on district issues, and the budget is one of the most important of those issues. There’s simply no way the board can do it’s job and exercise a proper, public review of the entire budget in a single meeting.
Furthermore, shouldn’t the public also be involved as much as possible before the budget is approved by the board? Even though the public is able to vote on the budget, all we get is a yes or no vote. If the board wants to pass a budget the public will vote for, wouldn’t it make sense to get the public’s input first?
Of course, public participation in municipal budgets has been so sparse in recent years, perhaps that’s how things ended up this way.
But both the city and county have deadlines in their respective charters by which the executive branch has to release a proposed budget for the legislative branch and officials have at least attempted to meet those deadlines most years. If the public wants to be involved at some point, at least they can. There’s no such deadline by which the district administration is required to release a draft to the board or the public before the board’s vote, but perhaps there should be.
According to DiCaprio, the budget will be made available to the public a week before the upcoming public hearing. I’ve gotten two different dates from two officials for that, so I’ll let you know the correct date when I can determine it. I’ll also follow up to see if perhaps, discussion has taken place between administration officials and board members outside the public meetings. I will report anything new that I find.