School districts everywhere, including Geneva, deal with the health insurance hit | News

Written by on May 14, 2022

GENEVA — It’s been a tumultuous year for the city School District.

Like all schools, Geneva has dealt with pandemic restrictions and staffing shortages, including a low number of substitute teachers. In Geneva, though, there was more to contend with: a probe into the former superintendent after reports of mistreatment by some staff members — she subsequently was cleared of wrongdoing, but departed anyway — and a superintendent search some claim was hurried.

The latter issue is settled. A former Geneva administrator, Bo Wright, will leave his job leading the Rush-Henrietta school district to take Geneva’s helm July 1.

Interim Superintendent Kathleen Davis came aboard last fall after former superintendent Patricia Garcia took a leave amid a school board-ordered investigation. Davis not only was tasked with restoring stability, but also crafting a 2022-23 school budget.

At her side: Maureen Lee, the interim director of business and finance. Lee came out of retirement after a career in school district budgeting to take a lead role in forming Geneva’s proposed $63.9 million spending plan for the coming school year that raises the tax levy — the amount to be raised by property taxes — by 3.9%. That number falls under the district’s allowable limit, a number derived through the state’s tax-cap formula.

Voters will cast their ballots on the budget and propositions, and elect two school board members, from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday at the North Street School Mini Gym.

Expenses always go up for school districts, but one number rose at an alarming rate: health insurance, explained Davis and Lee during a recent meeting with the Finger Lakes Times. It’s projected to rise $1.9 million. The additional $2 million in Foundation Aid from the state essentially was wiped out by the increase, they said.

Geneva is part of a consortium of Finger Lakes school districts that purchase Excellus health insurance through broker Smola Consulting. Other districts are feeling similar pain.

The consortium’s pool of money that pays for the district’s health insurance began to shrink in 2021 as elective surgeries — delayed during 2020 because of the covid pandemic — returned, driving up expenses significantly.

“What happened is they went through their reserves,” Lee explained.

By October 2021, Smola warned districts of big increases coming in 2022 to shore up those reserves.

However, healthcare is not the only line item where the district will spend more in the proposed budget. The cost of special education will rise nearly $1.4 million.

“It’s out-of-district placements that are driving up costs,” Davis explained. “We’re looking to see where we can bring students back to the district.”

And, like everyone, the cost of transportation is rising. Transportation expenses are up $175,000 for 2022-23, with both fuel and contractual numbers rising.

Districts are facing across-the-board expense increases, Davis noted.

“Everything is up due to inflation,” she said.

Given the steep rise in the cost of living for all residents, Davis and Lee said the district tried hard to keep expenses down while not affecting instruction. A last round of reductions slashed $211,680 from the budget to get to the 3.9% tax levy increase, a percentage point under what Geneva was allowed.

There are no “active personnel” cuts in the budget, Davis explained, but there are vacant jobs that, at this point, are not being filled.

The district also increased the money coming from reserves to pay for the spending plan — from $745,000 in the current budget to $1.9 million in for 2022-23.

“(Forming the budget) was a heavy list this year,” Davis said.

She said a goal was to leave incoming superintendent Wright with stable finances, but warned that the health insurance fund issue is a “two-year problem,” with an estimated 10.9% increase coming in the 2023-24 budget year.

“He’s got to pick up where I left off,” she said, adding that Lee has agreed to stay on another year to assist Wright in the leadership transition. “She knows the budget and what needs to happen.”

Davis acknowledged the community unrest that transpired at Geneva over the past school year, including a $390,000 payout to Garcia as part of a separation agreement. She is hopeful residents are happy with the district’s direction and the choice of Wright, a Geneva native, to lead its schools.

“I can’t tell people how to vote,” she said. “I can say this budget is about students and learning.”

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