The Schenectady City School District will get its long-withheld state transportation aid at last.
But it won’t get the entire $3.8 million at once. It will come in “stages,” likely over the course of several years.
It’s yet another stumbling block in the three-year fight over the money. The state Education Department has now promised to give the money back, but won’t say when it will arrive.
In an official letter, the department said it will return the money “as appropriations are made available,” with no specific timeframe. That means school officials can’t count on the money for the 2013-14 budget because they have no idea how much they’ll get next year.
Superintendent Laurence Spring said he doesn’t expect to get any money next year.
“We will get in line, so to speak. It will be some time before we actually see that money,” he said. “I don’t anticipate that we will see revenue from this decision in this next school year.”
School board President Cathy Lewis agreed.
“We don’t know enough,” she said, “and we’re running out of time.”
Board members agreed with Lewis’ assessment, deciding at their Wednesday night meeting not to include any of the aid revenue in the budget.
Lewis said the district had to simply carry on with its budget plans.
“We’re happy to receive it whenever we can, but it’s not going to buy back everything we’ve had to give up,” she said.
Board Vice President Ann Reilly said she was disappointed by the delays in receiving the aid.
“This budget is killing me,” she said. “We still have quite a few holes to fill. I’m delighted we are getting it back; I wish we could get it all at once.”
The best they can hope for, Lewis said, is to get the money back over three years.
“Three years, five years, 10 years — it easily could be 10 years,” Lewis said. “That’s $380,000 a year. That’s not much.”
Spring added he had hoped the Education Department would pay it back more quickly.
“I’m obviously disappointed,” he said Wednesday. “So, where are we in line? We’re trying to find out. We already started to push that today.”
Next, the board must decide what to do with the aid, whenever it arrives. Lewis and Spring want to use most of it to get the district back onto real-time accounting.
The district was criticized by its auditors last year for putting on its books money that it did not receive from the city. The city delayed its tax payments to the school district at the last minute, causing a serious financial dilemma.
After the audit, the district agreed to set aside money over the next 10 years to slowly fill that hole left by the city. Spring said the aid could be used to fill the hole right away.
Lewis agreed, but said she also did not think the district should use one-time revenue to pay for items that need funding every year.
“There are things we’ll need to change structurally in this district,” she said. “Clearly we have long-range planning that we want to do to see when we would be falling off a fiscal cliff. I would want to put it into [avoiding] that.”
Education Department officials appeared to decide Tuesday that Schenectady should get its money back. Education Commissioner John King called Sen. Hugh Farley, R-Niskayuna, on Tuesday to schedule a phone call for Wednesday, during which King gave Farley the news.
Farley has championed the cause for Schenectady, writing legislation on the issue and sending repeated letters to the Education Department to urge officials to disburse the money.
But King did not directly inform school officials Wednesday. Farley’s spokesman, Peter Edman, said the district would receive a letter from the department in the coming days that might explain when they would get the money back.
While Edman was frustrated by the lack of detail about “when and how much,” he was delighted to get good news at last.
“So they are going to get it,” he said with some relief when the news was released. “The longer it took, the more worried we were getting. It’s been a long, frustrating process.”
The issue began a decade ago, after the school district omitted a sentence in a legal ad in which it promised to avoid discrimination in its evaluation of bus bidders. Five years later, an official at the Education Department read the original legal ad and discovered the mistake. The district lost all five years of transportation aid as a result of the error.
The district appealed the decision, arguing the error was unintentional and insignificant — no one has alleged the district chose its bidders in a discriminatory way. Farley repeatedly sponsored legislation to get the money returned, but it was vetoed by governors David Paterson and Andrew Cuomo.
Finally, a year ago, Farley sponsored an amendment to a budget bill to get Schenectady’s money back. That bill passed, giving the Education Department the authority to give back aid to school districts if it was taken from them for minor, technical errors.
Farley publicly said it was specifically written so Schenectady could get back its transportation aid. But the department did not take action for more than a year, stoking criticism and worry that the aid might never be returned.
Just a month ago, Lewis said she’d stopped waiting for the aid. After three years of tough budgets, during which she hoped the aid would miraculously come through at the last minute, she said she’d decided it just wasn’t going to happen.
“If it does, it does,” she said then. “I’m not holding my breath.”