MAHOPAC, N.Y. - Because of the coronavirus pandemic, Mahopac School District voters will have to vote on the 2020-21 school budget and Board of Education candidates by mail this year. An executive order from Gov. Cuomo last week decreed that there will be no in-person voting.
Additionally, voters will have but one opportunity to pass the budget. Should it fail, the school district will be forced to adopt an austerity budget, which would result in program cuts and potential layoffs.
School Superintendent Anthony DiCarlo said an austerity budget would be tragic for the students, staff, and community, noting that over the past several years the district had finally begun to recover from the 2008 recession and was beginning to restore programs.
“We have worked really hard to put back programs, and we adopted a strategic plan. We are seeing the results of that and are being recognized now,” he said, referring to rankings recently revealed by U.S. News & World Report naming Mahopac a top school. (See story on page 20.) “We don’t want to take a step backward.
“When I first got here, I talked about right-sizing the district,” he added. “We’ve continued that through attrition. We are down a middle school team, and we are down at the elementary school level as well. We are trying to [continue] that, so we don’t have to lay off teachers and then have our [class sizes] go up. We have just the one vote and if we go to austerity, that means anyone who wants to use our buildings will have to pay for it. It also means the possibility of having to eliminate sports. I don’t want to have to get there.”
DiCarlo said cutting programs and sports would be devastating to the returning students who have already lost so much.
“These kids who are coming back have suffered and I don’t want to have to tell them I have to take all these things away from them,” he said. “I am very concerned about the social and emotional well-being of our students and what it’s going to look like come the fall both academically and extracurricular because these kids have already gone through a lot and to take more stuff away from them could be just devastating.”
Consequently, DiCarlo called the upcoming vote “probably the most important budget vote that this community might ever have.”
The superintendent explained that school districts across the state are working with outside vendors to have the ballots printed. He said the Mahopac ballots will be sent out around May 27-28 and must be returned by 5 p.m. on Tuesday, June 9, to be counted. He said the governor’s executive order dictates that all registered and qualified voters within the school district receive one. Mahopac will mail approximately 20,000 ballots at a cost to the district of around $45,000 to $55,000.
DiCarlo noted the irony should the budget fail and the district is forced into austerity.
“When the schools open back up in September, there will be a lot of time and work needed [to disinfect] them and get them ready,” he said. “We will need more people to do that. But we could lose that [if the budget fails]. It’s counterintuitive. There are no words [to describe it].”
To make matters worse, the school board and district administrators are flying blind as they try to put the 2020-21 budget together because the amount of state aid is currently unknown and if and when it does come, it will likely be significantly reduced from past years. In fact, under the current executive order, it could be slashed on four separate occasions throughout the academic year—May 15, June 30, Dec. 31, and March 31, 2021.
“We are being asked to develop a budget on a lot of ‘what-ifs,’” DiCarlo said. “And along the way, we may get other cuts. We have never seen anything like it before. It’s like trying to hit a moving target. We are working hard to keep the programs we started to get back over the last three years. We want to keep that momentum moving forward but still keep in mind what the taxpayer can afford. That is the balancing act. We could get cut again during the course of the year, and we don’t know what those cuts could be. It’s going to be a very, very difficult 2020-21 budget.”
Sandra Clohessy, assistant superintendent for business, said that while state aid will be lacking, money could still come from the federal government.
“We are waiting for the federal government to come through,” she said. “Hopefully, they’ll provide a stimulus package so if we lose state aid, it will be replaced. It is a balancing act. We are always trying to take the taxpayer into account, as well as the students.”
Clohessy said some funds left over from the current budget could be transferred to the 2020-21 spending package, which could mitigate some of the impending fiscal challenges.
“We hope to be able to save some funds from this year that will help us to weather the storm,” she said. “If we can do that, we hope to keep our fund balance stable and have some reserves, so that when those costs hit, we can use some of that reserve. But we don’t want to throw every dime we have at the budget because once you do that you don’t have anything [to fall back on]. It’s not a rainy-day fund, it’s an important part of the financial picture because once you do cuts, it takes a long time to get things back. Hopefully, the federal government will come in and bail us out because that’s what we need at this point.”
DiCarlo called the current budget crisis “uncharted territory,” with the state saying it has no money left for its public schools. Normally, school districts know what their state aid will be by April 1.
“Once we get the [aid] numbers, and we know what the cuts are, the board will adopt the budget,” he said, explaining why the district isn’t ready to present any budget figures at this point. “We don’t want to confuse the public.”
Mahopac News will have a complete budget report once the figures become available.
DiCarlo said that no matter what the final numbers are, he doesn’t expect the budget will exceed the state-imposed 2 percent tax levy cap.
As for the school board race, that, too, will be on the mailer that district voters will receive. DiCarlo said the normal petition requirements for candidates are waived this year and district residents can get on the ballot by filling out some requisite paperwork with the district office.
Three seats are up for grabs, with the three-year terms of Mark O’Connor, Mike Simone and board President Leslie Mancuso expiring. DiCarlo said O’Connor and Mancuso have indicated they will not seek re-election, adding that several others have thrown their hats into the ring. The deadline to get on the ballot was May 11 and in an upcoming issue, Mahopac News will profile all the candidates.
Additionally, this year’s ballots will also contain a vote for approving the Mahopac Public Library budget.
“I think that will further confuse people,” DiCarlo said.