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Schoharie County schools look to have aid restored

‘Adjustment’ costing districts millions

Tuesday, February 5, 2013
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Graduates and their families gather outside Middleburgh Central School following a high school graduation ceremony in June 2012.
Graduates and their families gather outside Middleburgh Central School following a high school graduation ceremony in June 2012.

— A three-letter acronym is the bane of rural school district budgeting.

Millions of dollars promised to school districts by the state are withheld as part of the gap elimination adjustment, or GEA, as it was contemptuously referred to by officials from Schoharie County school districts Tuesday night in the cafeteria at Schoharie Central School.

The message these officials had for Assemblyman Peter Lopez, R-Schoharie, and state Sen. James Seward, R-Milford, who teamed to organize the forum, was that the state has to redo the formula that calculates this adjustment.

The GEA is a budgeting tool created during the recent state fiscal crisis and continues in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2013-14, which strips the six Schoharie County school districts of almost $6.5 million.

The pain isn’t limited to Schoharie County, though, as Mayfield Central School District Superintendent Paul Williamsen noted this budgeting practice cost his district $1.4 million in the proposed budget and more than $1.5 million in last year’s budget.

“My desire would be to have [the state] remove the gap elimination law,” Williamsen said Tuesday. “It’s way too much money to be taking away from our kids and our programs. I understand the situation at the state level ... but this is not appropriate.”

In recent years, the Mayfield Central School District has shed more than 30 jobs.

“We’re done right-sizing,” he said.

State legislators from rural areas almost uniformly support tweaking the practice.

At the Schoharie forum, Lopez suggested expanding the state’s pool of money for education to decrease the need for withholding money through the GEA. He wants to give schools about $500 million from the state’s Division of Lottery revenues, which otherwise would be reinvested into lottery prizes.

“Would that be meaningful for the GEA?” he asked.

Lopez is inclined to support game-changing ideas to save rural schools, saying that small tweaks in recent years aren’t enough to prevent these schools from failing in a few years.

“We’re nibbling around the edges,” he said.

The proposed cuts to local districts include: Gilboa-Conesville, $406,309; Jefferson, $249,718; Middleburgh, $921,468; Cobleskill-Richmondville, $2,859,047; Schoharie, $1,673,068; and Sharon Springs, $370,534.

In the current budget fight, Seward, who serves on an education budget conference committee, promised to try to divert money to rural schools. He mentioned $75 million for new initiatives, like a longer school year, and about a quarter-billion dollars New York City lost when it failed to reach an agreement on teacher and principal evaluations as pots of money that could make a big difference to rural school districts.

Schoharie County school officials also decried Cuomo’s insistence on competitive grants, arguing they’re not in a position to compete for this money. Seward noted how the state Senate has previously reduced the funds set aside for competitive grants, suggesting it could happen again this year.

Seward was also open to Cuomo’s pension stabilization plan, which would generate short-term savings for distressed school districts and municipalities, but officials from Schoharie County were not warmly receiving the idea.

A plan widely supported by school officials would end locally negotiated health care agreements with teacher unions, a plan backed by state Sen. Cecilia Tkaczyk, D-Duanesburg.

“Allow schools to band together and pool health care plans, reducing costs for schools, employees and taxpayers without cutting programs or otherwise hurting children’s education,” she said in a statement Tuesday. Her district includes rural schools in Schenectady and Montgomery counties.

While Schoharie County school officials wanted statewide health care solutions and teacher evaluations systems, they also stressed the need to give them more localized control over their resources. In an interview Tuesday, Assemblyman James Tedisco, R-Glenville, echoed this sentiment.

“The No. 1 way to give [rural schools] help without more money is autonomy,” he said, complaining about cookie-cutter requirements passed down by the state Education Department.

 
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