Capital Region

State budget boosts local districts

Aid increases might stave off budget cuts in some places, but not everywhere
Schalmont School buses line up at Jefferson Elementary School at dismissal Friday, September 11, 2015.
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Schalmont School buses line up at Jefferson Elementary School at dismissal Friday, September 11, 2015.

State education spending is likely to stave off some budget cuts in local school districts, but some will still struggle to close gaps that could result in cuts to school staff and student services as they finalize spending plans in the coming weeks. 

State lawmakers boosted statewide education spending by nearly $1 billion in a budget deal finalized Friday night, including a $620 million increase in the state’s core funding formula, also called foundation aid.

While schools were spared spending caps on transportation, BOCES funding and building expenses that were pitched by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in his proposed budget, the state’s final spending plan includes a new school-level financial reporting mandate that will apply to around 75 school districts this fall and will affect all districts by fall 2020. 

Though the worst fears of school officials and advocates did not come to fruition, overall education spending levels  — about $1 billion — in the state budget fell short of what educators estimated would be necessary to cover rising costs of staff salaries, retirement benefits and health insurance costs while maintaining programs and services. 

“Our enthusiasm is somewhat tempered by the fact that the aid increase is less than what we believe is necessary to maintain current educational programming,” said New York School Boards Association Executive Director Timothy Kremer in a prepared statement Monday.

In the Capital Region, school budgets run a gamut, with some planning new investments in staff and programs and others considering staff cuts to cover budget shortfalls. Many districts are also considering raising local tax levies by larger amounts than in recent years, and a few are looking to exceed their tax cap limits.

Districts in the Capital Region will see foundation aid increases of nearly 3 percent on average. The funding boosts range from a high of 4 percent for the Albany City School District to a 1.9 percent increase for a handful of other districts.

The increases will give schools more money to work with than earlier forecasts, which were crafted under the anticipation of a tough budget year. But the funding still won’t be enough to spare some districts from cuts.

Schenectady schools will receive a 3.27 percent increase in foundation aid, amounting to more than $3 million. That will allow administrators to avoid budget cuts.

Schenectady Superintendent Larry Spring this weekend said the district won’t have to cut student services or raise taxes as a result of a budget he plans to present to the school board next week. He said the district will be able to make modest investments in new programs.

“I think it will ensure that we won’t have to cut anything,” Spring said.

Schenectady City School District officials at recent school board meetings have discussed investments made last year to establish a general education continuum, which matches specific services to students similar to how special education services work. Those programs, which officials said are helping students, still don’t cover thousands of students who need help, district officials said.

In Niskayuna, where the school board has already adopted a budget that lifts the tax levy by 2.6 percent and adds more than 15 new positions, district officials will be able to devote around $57,000 more than previously budgeted toward lowering the tax levy. That money could also allow the district to use less reserves for next year’s budget.

Mohonasen, which is facing a $900,000 budget gap and is considering eliminating as many as a dozen positions while increasing the local tax levy by the maximum-allowed amount of 3.2 percent, will see little relief from the final aid numbers. With a foundation aid increase of 2.65 percent, the district will get about $65,000 more than it had projected.

Chris Ruberti, Mohonasen’s business official, said Monday the district’s shortfall is largely driven by cost increases in the district’s prescription drug plan, which he said are expected to rise by $900,000 next year. He said it was disappointing the state aid increase won’t do more to stave off cuts. 

Scotia-Glenville and other area districts also face spending gaps that will not be covered by increases contained in the state budget. School boards are set to meet in coming weeks to discuss options for balancing final spending plans. 

Districts must adopt final budgets in the coming weeks and put them up for voter approval on May 15. 

Daily Gazette reporter Steven Cook contributed to this article.

Categories: News, Schenectady County

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