Minisink Valley School District’s Proposed Tax Levy Up by 2.3 Percent

Minisink Valley School District’s Proposed Tax Levy Up by 2.3 Percent
Residents enter the Otisville Elementary School building to vote on the Minisink Valley District public library referendum, in Otisville, N.Y., on Oct. 18, 2022. (Cara Ding/The Epoch Times)
Cara Ding

The Minisink Valley School District’s proposed budget for the next school year stands at $120 million, up by about $7 million from the current year.

The proposed tax levy goes up by about $1.2 million to $53 million, an increase just below the tax growth cap set by the New York state comptroller’s office.

Much of the budget bump can be attributed to a $3 million purchase of school buses, with three-quarters of total costs to be reimbursed by the state over the next five years.

“It is more cost-effective for us to do it that way for our taxpayers,” Superintendent Brian Monahan told The Epoch Times, adding that if the district were to borrow money for buses next year, as routinely done in the past, it would mean more interest payments.

A key reason the district can include bus purchases in the operating budget this time without exceeding the tax cap is increased state aid under Gov. Kathy Hochul’s new formula.

Earlier this year, Ms. Hochul proposed to get rid of the “Save Harmless” clause, which had guaranteed zero aid cuts in certain districts regardless of qualifications at the cost of others.

Despite uncertainties in the state budget negotiations, Mr. Monahan was confident from his experience that the finalized aid package for the district could only be better than that proposed by Ms. Hochul.

If voters approve all these purchase plans, the district hopes to buy 15 buses next year, 10 to 15 buses the following year, and 10 new buses each year after that.

In recent years, voters had twice voted down bus purchase propositions, and the district’s fleet is behind on its 10-year replacement schedule, according to Mr. Monahan.

“New York state has some of the most stringent requirements for buses to pass the Department of Transportation inspection,” he said. “We’ve got to catch up on the purchase.”

The district has owned and maintained its own bus fleet since 1958.

“Probably the best deal taxpayers can get is on the purchase of buses because we have such a high reimbursement rate for state aid,” Mr. Monahan said.

“We had to repair one of our buses a couple of years ago, which costs us nearly $30,000, and we were going to get maybe another year or two out of that bus, whereas a new bus, when it is all said and done, only costs us about $35,000, and we get 12 years of services out of that bus.”

From BOCES to District

Payroll and employee benefits, which take up a lion’s share of the school budget, are projected to go up by nearly $4 million next year.

In addition to contractual salary and benefit increases, the district plans to hire several new special education teachers.

According to Mr. Monahan, it is part of a years-long effort to bring students back from BOCES, or Orange-Ulster Board of Cooperative Educational Services, to their home district.

“We think we can educate them right here at Minisink Valley,” he said, noting that expenses on outside programs will gradually drop as the district builds up its own faculty.

Last year, 13 students in BOCES programs returned to the district; this year, the number of returning students is projected to be about 11.

Meanwhile, costs for sending students with unique needs to outside specialty institutions other than BOCES are proposed to increase by nearly $446,000 next year.

“These are unique needs [services] that are cost prohibitive for us to provide them in-house,” Assistant Superintendent for Business Patrick Witherow told The Epoch Times.

“What happens basically is that Minisink has two or three kids that need services, Port Jervis has two or three kids, Middletown has a couple of kids, and we all send our kids to the same private schools because it is less expensive in that fashion than providing the services ourselves.”

In the coming year, operation and maintenance expenses are estimated to increase by $240,000, largely driven by inflation; insurance costs are projected to increase by nearly $300,000, mainly to cover a new wastewater plant on campus; and debt payments will drop by $1.6 million.

What’s Next?

If the state aid package is more favorable than estimated, the district plans to bump up expenditures on employee benefits or lower the amount of fund balance appropriations.

The current budget calls for $5 million in fund balance to cover unexpected expenses.

Over the past two months, the district has held five finance committee meetings, during which department heads and district leaders reviewed the school budget almost line by line with the school board.

Meeting videos and slides are available on the district website.

School board members are expected to adopt a district budget on April 18, which will be communicated to the community through a budget newsletter and a public hearing.

“We have dramatically expanded our budget newsletter to provide more information to the community,” Mr. Monahan said, noting that the number of pages has doubled in recent years.

District residents will vote for a new school budget on May 21.

Cara is an Orange County, New York-based Epoch Times reporter. She can be reached at [email protected]