Capital Region state legislators want to inject $350 million into the proposed state budget to help needy school districts.
The push is an effort to help offset about $2 billion in state aid that is being withheld from school districts as part of a Gap Elimination Adjustment, a tool created four years ago to reduce the budget deficit by withholding a percentage of a district’s state aid. Legislators, educators and school officials assembled at the Legislative Office Building on Wednesday to argue that the GEA unfairly hurts high-need school districts because such a large portion of their funding is derived from state aid.
“[The GEA] was supposed to be a one-time cut in education funding,” said state Sen. Cecilia Tkaczyk, D-Duanesburg. “Unfortunately, these cuts have continued.”
She and a group of other legislators are calling on Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders to add $350 million into school aid and move more than $250 million in the budget to help needy schools. Stressing the need for a change, the legislators cited a recent statewide survey that showed 87 percent of districts have cut teachers, a quarter have cut back honors classes and remedial programs are being eliminated.
“Schools are running out of money,” Tkaczyk said.
Speaking in support of the proposal was Fort Plain resident Sara Niccoli, parent of a Harry Hoag Elementary School fourth-grader. She said her daughter’s school has stretched its teaching staff thin, has few enrichment activities and doesn’t have enough resources.
“School has really become a lesson in getting through six hours and 38 minutes of the day,” Niccoli said.
Also speaking out was Fonda-Fultonville Central School District board President Linda Wszolek, who said the district’s staff has been cut 17 percent in the last three years and they were also forced to do mid-year budget cuts recently. The result, she said, is a “skeleton staff.”
“We are at the point where we are adversely affecting our children on a daily basis,” Wszolek said.
The proposal to increase aid to needy districts includes redirecting efficiency grants, leftover bullet aid and additional education dollars, changing the formulas for determining the GEA and state aid, and adding $350 million in new money for education aid.
As to where an increase in education aid would come from, Tkaczyk suggested that one source of revenue would be closing tax loopholes. She called on businesses that operate in the state but aren’t headquartered here to pay taxes here.
“We’re open to suggestions,” she added.
Assemblyman Phil Steck, D-Colonie, endorsed moving away from competitive grants and using that money as state aid.
“I’m against this grant process,” he said, describing it as a waste of time. “It becomes a contest of who can write the best grants.”
Steck lamented the fact that less than half of last year’s funding for competitive grants was distributed. He said it would be a mistake to repeat that this year, with $50 million targeted for competitive grants in the proposed budget.
Schoharie Central School District Superintendent Brian Sherman added that the competitive grant process is actually harmful for small districts, because they don’t have the staff to apply for these grants.
“We don’t have the resources to compete,” he said.
Sherman also supported ending the process of allocating bullet aid, money distributed after the budget process. Even though Schoharie has benefited from this funding in the past, he said allocating it as a normal portion of the state budget would be more beneficial, as it would allow districts to budget properly.
Steck noted that it was important to deal with more than just the inequities of the GEA, highlighting the different needs of the Schenectady City School District and the Niskayuna Central School District. He said Schenectady was hurt more by the state education aid formula than the GEA, while Niskayuna suffered more from the GEA than the education aid formula.
Tkaczyk described their proposals as a short-term solution for this year, with the state needing to develop long-term plans that will change how education is funded.
“The bottom line is we need more money to help us fund our education program so we can adequately provide the funding for our teachers, our schools, and so our kids can get the education programming they need,” she said.