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School officials: State budget could be better, could be worse

School officials: State budget could be better, could be worse

Many area school officials say they are grateful for receiving more aid than they would have under t

Many area school officials say they are grateful for receiving more aid than they would have under the governor’s original budget proposal but are disappointed that legislators did not help them control costs by eliminating state mandates.

The Legislature restored $272 million of the $1.5 billion in education funding that Gov. Andrew Cuomo had proposed cutting. Most school districts will see cuts of hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars from what they got last year.

Total aid to the Schenectady City School District is about $5 million less than last year. But the district will see about a million more in funding than it would have under the governor’s proposal. This includes about $600,000 in foundation aid — the main block of state school money — and $400,000 in aid associated with special education costs, according to Superintendent John Yagielski.

“I’m just happy to get what I can get,” he said. “When we’re trying to claw our way to balancing the budget, every bit helps. Would I like to have more? I have to be honest and say yes.”

Yagielski said the state did not have up-to-date information about the number of special education students in the district but these new aid figures reflect the current amounts.

Schenectady was facing a $9.6 million shortfall, so this will bring that down to $8.6 million. Yagielski is proposing changes — including in the way the district delivers remedial instruction — to decrease that deficit. School officials are aiming for no tax increase because Yagielski believes residents can’t afford any more taxes.

“The million dollars helps climb that mountain. We still have some more work to do,” he said.

Formula complaints

Fonda-Fultonville Superintendent James Hoffman said he was disappointed by the amount of aid the Legislature restored in the budget.

“We got $75,000 back,” he said. “It would not quite cover the cost of bringing back two teachers.”

Hoffmann believes that the funding formula is inequitable. State aid accounts for 60 percent of Fonda-Fultonville’s budget. Downstate districts are much less reliant on state aid, so even if they receive a bigger percentage cut, it has much less of an impact.

Cobleskill-Richmondville Superintendent Lynn Macan also had issues with how the education aid was distributed. Despite receiving nearly $300,000 more than in Cuomo’s initial proposal, the district is still seeing its state aid cut by about $1.3 million. This translates to about $1,994 per student, which Macan said is one of the of the largest reductions in the state.

Macan believes that upstate school districts took a bigger share of the impact than downstate. Similarly sized schools on Long Island saw cuts of between $300 and $600 in aid per student.

Legislators need to re-examine the formula, according to Macan. “There shouldn’t be such disparity between schools in geographic areas,” she said.

With such a large budget gap, the district is looking at laying off 23 teachers and 10 support staff and cutting modified sports, four varsity level sports and some clubs.

Macan was also disappointed that the Legislature didn’t address changing the Triborough Amendment, which guarantees that contracts remain in place with corresponding salary increases until new ones are negotiated. Also, she said the state should change laws to allow districts to buy into a statewide health insurance plan and implement limits on contributions to the Teachers Retirement System and Employee Retirement System so there are not wide swings from year to year on how much districts have to fund into the plan.

School officials will be lobbying for changes, even after they complete work on this year’s budgets, according to Macan.

“I think budgeting has become a year-round proposition for the majority of school systems,” she said. “Advocacy for public education is not a one-day-a-year event or sending emails. It’s relationship-building with legislators.”

The Greater Amsterdam School District is among the few districts whose aid is increasing from the previous year — going from $30.7 million to $31.5 million.

About $287,000 was restored from Cuomo’s cut, according to Superintendent Thomas Perillo. That would be enough to save about six positions of the roughly 67 instructional and noninstructional ones that were on the chopping block. The district had been facing a $5 million budget gap because of the state aid reduction and increased contractual expenses.

“It’s becoming more and more difficult for us to maintain programs that we need,” he said.

Despite the assurances from state officials that it factors need into the aid amount given to school districts, Perillo said it seems that wealthy districts received as much of a share of the restored funds as disadvantaged districts.

Mandates criticized

Also, Perillo said the state did not address mandate relief in the areas of special education.

The lack of mandate relief — which has been talked about for a decade — was also a sore spot for Shenendehowa Superintendent L. Oliver Robinson.

“I think it was hyped up so much with the political rhetoric coming out of the governor’s office that people were hopeful that there might be some clear sort of mandate relief,” he said.

One idea is to allow school districts to partner with local municipalities to purchase health insurance. This could help get some control over exploding health insurance costs, Robinson said, which add up to about $36 million in the district’s budget.

“I’m afraid that we will be at $50 million in health insurance [costs] in five years,” he said.

In addition to Triborough, other laws that should be reformed include the Wicks Law, which requires school districts to put out for bid separately the plumbing, electrical and heating components of a construction project, he said.

To balance the budget, Robinson said the district is looking at eliminating 80 jobs and using $4 million of fund balance and money from the federal education jobs bill to plug the $6 million budget hole it faces. However, those are only one-shot revenues that the district will have to make up next year.

Then there is still the threat of a property tax cap of 2 percent next year. If that happens, the district would have no choice but to implement devastating reductions in programs, Robinson said. There is only so much schools can do to reduce expenses.

“Without some real ways to reduce the cost footprint, we find ourselves banging against the wall,” he said.

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