State to Cut Aid to Some School Districts

1:16 AM, Jan 29, 2013   |    comments
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By Jessica Bakeman, Albany Bureau

ALBANY - Gov. Andrew Cuomo touted a 3 percent school aid increase in his budget proposal Tuesday, but not every district gets a bump under his plan -- in fact, nearly a quarter of districts would get less than they did this year.

Increase or not, superintendents said they will wrestle with deficits and be forced to cut teachers and academic programs if Cuomo's budget is adopted.

Click Here to See A District-By-District Database of the Proposed Aid Payments

Some school leaders are waiting to determine whether they'll be eligible for the $203 million in fiscal stabilization funds and $75 million in competitive grants for full-day pre-kindergarten and other initiatives, which Cuomo included in addition to about $20.8 billion in direct aid.

In Erie County, Sweet Home Central School District would see a 2.8% decrease in state aid for 2013-2014.

Clarence Central School District would also see a 2.5% decrease in state aid for 2013-2014.

East Aurora would see a 4% decrease in state aid, as well as Iroquois Central School District, who would see a 3.8% decrease in funding.

"The year-to-year costs in education just to tread water are more than the amount of money in the proposed budget," said Billy Easton, executive director of the labor-backed advocacy group Alliance for Quality Education. "If we actually want to improve the schools -- that's not even addressed here."

Cuomo argued during his budget presentation that the proposed increase is "notable and significant," given that the state will struggle with a $1.3 billion deficit.

He said he's raised education funding 8.6 percent over two years.

"That is double the rate of inflation," he said. "That is four or five times the increase in home values during the same period of time, and it's during a period of time where student enrollment has gone down.

"Ideally, we would always like to fund everything with all the money in the world, but we live in the real," he continued.

Under Cuomo's plan, 159 districts would get fewer state aid dollars than they did this year, which is about 22 percent of the state's roughly 700 districts, according to New York State United Teachers, a statewide union.

Mark Sansouci, assistant superintendent for business at Penfield schools near Rochester, said the district is "constantly in the mode" of cutting where possible and eliminating positions vacated by leaving or retiring personnel.

Penfield would get a proposed 5.1 percent decrease, a figure that includes building aid, which is state funding for capital improvements. The district would get about $21.8 million, down about $1.2 million from this year.

Monroe County averaged a 4 percent increase in the proposal.

Penfield's cuts are partly explained by one-time money the district received this year for a building project and to convert its half-day pre-K to full-day classes, Sansouci said. The actual cut, about $100,000, he considers "flat."

"We really thought we'd see some small share of the 3 percent increase, and it doesn't look like we're getting much of that, so that was a little surprising," Sansouci said.

Even districts that are receiving small or relatively significant increases warn that the proposed aid is not enough.

New Paltz Superintendent Maria Rice said teachers' retirement costs alone at the Ulster County district are growing by about $900,000, so the $333,500 increase won't come close.

The district would get about $12.4 million, a 2.8 percent increase from last year, when including building aid. The county's average is 2 percent.

Based on the aid, Rice projects the district will have to cut between $800,000 and $1 million to balance the budget, which is "luckily" less than last year's gap, she said.

The district cut its pre-K program and increased class sizes this year. Next year, she said she'll debate whether to cut Advanced Placement courses or eliminate an elementary foreign language program which she said has been successful.

"We just wanted to start to be able to maintain the educational programs that we have, instead of constantly cutting those programs," she said.

Laval Wilson, Poughkeepsie schools superintendent, said he considers the cuts schools have endured throughout Cuomo's efforts to close state budget gaps as "taxes."

"The district is really being taxed to help support the state government," he said. "I think that's a shame that we have to foot the bill. The young people in this district have lost considerable support."

In the past three years, Poughkeepsie has eliminated 113 instructional positions, closed an elementary school, converted full-day pre-K to half-day, reduced music and art offerings and cut an alternative program for disruptive secondary students, he said.

The district will face a more than $3 million gap next year under Cuomo's plan, Wilson said.

The district would get about $55.5 million including building aid, about a $1.9 million or 3.5 percent increase. Dutchess County's average is a 2 percent increase.

"I understand the whole issue of fiscal responsibility and social progress," Wilson said, referring to Cuomo's priorities, "but the social progress for us means that the education programs we have tried to support have been cut back and reduced."

Rochester schools would face a $50 million deficit under the plan, but Superintendent Bolgen Vargas said a pension-financing plan Cuomo presented in his budget could help shrink the gap.

The "Big Five" school district in Monroe County would get about $481.2 million, including building aid, which is a 5.2 percent increase from this year.

The pension stabilization option would give local governments and school districts a lower, more predictable employer contribution rate over a period of 25 years or more, rather than high bills now and presumably lower ones later.

Vargas said he was considering enrolling in the plan, which would result in significant short-term savings, cutting next year's deficit to around $35 million.

Vargas said he was hopeful, too, that Rochester would score grant funds for Cuomo's reform initiatives -- full-day pre-K, extended school days or years, community schools and early-college high schools. The superintendent said these areas are where Rochester is already spending money, so the grant monies would help pay for some of what they're already doing.

"That is excellent for Rochester," he said. "I am very happy that the budget that the governor is proposing represents some of our priorities."

Kimberly Bucci, assistant superintendent for business and finance at Rye Neck schools in Westchester County, said the district will need to close a $540,000 deficit.

The proposed budget is slated to get a 10 percent increase, including building aid -- about $1.6 million. She said she expects less, though, as the schools' transportation needs had changed and the current numbers were inflated.

"The board will be wrestling with a combination of: Is it possible to increase revenues in other areas and look at reserve funds? They will also be looking at, are there cuts in the budget that we can make?," she said. "Everything is the on the table -- personnel or maintenance items -- before they look at piercing the (property-tax) cap."

Administrators at Ithaca schools were not available for comment. The district would receive $25.8 million, including building aid -- about a $717,000 or 2.9 percent increase. Tompkins County averaged a 4 percent increase.

Binghamton schools, which would get a 13.2 percent increase including building aid, declined to comment on the numbers before having more time to review them. The district would get $58.6 million, about $6.9 million more than last year.

Some districts said the aid picture was better than they'd anticipated.

Whitney Point schools in Broome County are slated for an 8 percent jump from last year. Broome County's average is a 5 percent increase.

The high-needs district in the Southern Tier would get about $22.7 million, including building aid, which is about a $1.7 million increase.

Superintendent Patricia Follette said the proposed increase won't solve all the districts' problems, though. It has cut positions and tapped reserve funds in recent years, and costs continue to grow.

"We do look like we are one of the higher districts at this point, which we are cautiously appreciative of," Follette said.

Bob Lowry, deputy director of the state Council of School Superintendents, said he was pleasantly surprised, as well. He expected Cuomo to take money for the competitive grants out of the school aid pot.

The fact that the governor allocated a $611 million increase in aid plus the $203 million for stabilization and $75 million for reform initiatives is encouraging, he said.

"What the governor proposed is more positive than I anticipated, but I also know that it doesn't do enough to help a great many districts," he said.

He said the Legislature often funds education at a higher level than what the governor proposes. By including the additional education funds that are not budgeted as direct aid, Cuomo gives lawmakers the opportunity to move money around within education rather than add to the overall state budget, Lowry said.

Similarly, last year, the Legislature moved $200 million Cuomo had proposed for competitive performance grants to the school aid formula. The governor offered $50 million in grants instead.

"I think it's a way for the governor to have some control over the total amount of state spending," he said.

Richard Iannuzzi, NYSUT president, said he appreciates Cuomo's push for full-day pre-K, more instructional time and community schools.

"The governor has started us moving down a road that recognizes some important things that need to be done in education," Iannuzzi said, "but they're going to be difficult to achieve without the resources."

The Journal News database specialist Tim Henderson contributed to this report.

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