It’s unfair that the city of Schenectady, which barely has enough money to function, must not only collect taxes for the school district but make it whole for any uncollected taxes. But that’s what state law requires, and the city’s withholding of those payments the last two years (Mayor Gary McCarthy says it will pay up in 2013) has put the district in a serious financial bind. This has been compounded by more unfairness on the part of the state: its own withholding of $3.8 million in transportation aid because of a minor clerical error made by the district in 2003.
The mistake had to do with two transportation contracts announced in this newspaper in 2003. While the legal notices advertised the contracts and called for bids, they didn’t include the criteria on which the bids would be judged. But all the interested contractors had this information before the bidding, so the mistake was technical and had no real effect.
Nonetheless the state Education Department’s response, upon learning of the error in 2008, was to say the contracts hadn’t been properly approved and demand its money back — i.e. transportation aid already disbursed to the district in the previous four years.
School officials turned to their representatives in Albany, who (along with lawmakers representing four other school districts in the same boat) passed legislation forgiving the mistake. Such legislation to rectify a technical error is routine, but this time Gov. David Paterson, citing the state’s huge fiscal problems, vetoed it. And when another attempt was made last year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo also vetoed it, saying that he didn’t want to micromanage the Education Department.
Rather than require the district to come up with the $3.8 million all at once, the Education Department “generously” agreed to reclaim the money by withholding future transportation aid to the district, $2.9 million last year and $900,000 this year.
But Cuomo and lawmakers have opened the door to rectifying the injustice. In this year’s budget bill they included a section specifically pertaining to cases where the Education Department has denied transportation aid for a school district transportation contract or has recovered payments related thereto. The section says that if the school district can demonstrate to the education commissioner that the errors leading to the denial were minor, inadvertent and clerical or technical in nature, any related contracts shall be considered legal and valid.
In May the district applied to the Education Department for reconsideration, former Superintendent John Yagielski sent letters and in August followed up with a personal visit. The district is still waiting to hear.
The district badly needs and deserves this money. Given the language of the budget bill, and nature of the error, it should get it. But with the decision in the hands of an agency notorious for its bureaucracy and opaqueness, no one should feel confident that it will.