Schools once again face sizable state aid reduction
Schools locally and across the state are digesting figures in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s executive budget, released Tuesday, Feb. 1, and most are reluctantly drafting plans to dismiss employees in the coming year.
Cuomo’s proposal calls for a $1.5 billion, or 7.3 percent, reduction in state aid to school districts (bringing such aid to a $19.4 billion item, or 29 percent of the state budget). If his figures are adopted by the legislature and there is at least tacit support for his proposal from many lawmakers it will the the third year running schools have seen aid fall.
Since the culling would be weighted by need, suburban schools here in the Capital District would all see more than a 7.3 percent reduction. In the Bethlehem Central School District, aid would decrease by about $2.7 million, or around 10 percent. That’s close to what administrators expected.
`It was probably wise for us to prepare a worst case scenario,` said Superintendent Michael Tebbano of the district’s ongoing budget discussions. `We’re going to be losing more personnel.`
At a budget forum in late January, Tebbano said the district could stand to cut 20 teachers and a number of other staff and still fall well short of closing a $5 million gap.
Similarly, Guilderland Central School District Superintendent Marie Wiles expects to be putting a seriously reduced spending plan to the school board in coming weeks. There, the proposed aid cut is $2.1 million, or about 9 percent, which when coupled with increased expenses (salaries and benefits) makes for a $4.2 million gap on an $82 million budget.
`We anticipated something pretty close to this,` Wiles said. `There is no way to make up that difference without reducing our employee basewe can’t get $4.2 million out of materials, supplies and field trips.`
Voters in the Ravena-Coeymans-Selkirk School District rejected the district’s budget last May, and the district is now running off a contingency budget. A 14 percent hit to its aid numbers ($2.4 million) does not portend an easier year.
`It’s drastic and it’s devastating,` said Superintendent Daniel Teplesky.
The district is looking to the community for recommendations on what to cut from the program. A survey will be made available on the district web site in coming days.
`We’re going to ask some further, in-depth questions and ask individuals to make some determinations on what they believe is more important,` Teplesky said.
Mandate relief a common plea
School districts draw their revenues from two sources: state aid and property taxes. If aid falls off then taxes must increase or expenditures must be drawn down ` it’s a simple budgeting principle.
But a cry that’s increasingly being heard from schools is that it’s difficult to cut costs under a blanket of about 220 state mandates that require schools to meet various criteria, sometimes at great expense to benefit a small number of students.
`There are so many areas of out spending plan over which we have no control,` said Wiles. `Every year additional rules and requirements are piled on without the resources to pay for them…it’s really all quite unpalatable.`
Tebbano estimated unfunded mandates account for 20 percent of BC’s $90 million budget.
The tax cap cometh?
Mandates are a hot topic when considering another recent educational development: the passingof tax cap legislation in the state Senate.
The Senate passed a plan by a wide margin on Monday, Jan. 31. It would limit schools’ tax levy growth to 2 percent per year, or to the rate of inflation, whichever is lower. Downstate Democrats were the only contingent of lawmakers to oppose the bill.
Under the law, the annual school budget vote would be replaced by a vote on the tax levy. If it is defeated twice, the district would be forced to assume no increase in its levy. Also, a supermajority vote of 60 percent would be required to pass any hike above 2 percent.
Administrators argue the law is an unfair one unless they’re given greater control over their budgets, and some said they’d sign on if that happens.
`I fully support the concept,` Tebbano said of the tax cap. `If they could reduce those [mandates] just by half, then we’ll be in a better position to say a 2 percent tax cap is a wonderful thing.`
Cuomo has formed a council to study state mandates.
Wiles noted a tax cap could be particularly onerous for smaller districts without 8-figure budgets, where even small changes could shift the tax burden significantly.
`It’s a very blunt instrument,` she said. `2 percent on our levy is different that a school district that is very tiny.`
Cuomo introduces competition
Though Cuomo’s plan slashes aid, it also includes a proposal to make available $500 million in competitive grants to school districts, divided equally between Performance Improvement Awards and School District Management Efficiency Awards.
There’s still not much clarity on the criteria for these grants, but in the suburban areas of the Capital District superintendents generally said their districts might only qualify for efficiency rewards.
`Our graduation rate is high, we are a school that is not in any danger of failing because our scores are wonderful,` Tebbano said.
A merit-based rewards system is one that is gaining footing in the American education system, albeit with some detractors. President Barack Obama has been a notable proponent for such a change, and as such has been pushing the Race to the Top Fund.
Ultimately, schools here that are facing similar challenges will be engaging their communities in similar ways, with public budget workshops and surveys. For more on the schedules for such forums, read The Spotlight or visit district Web sites at bcsd.k12.ny.us, rcscsd.org and guilderlandschools.org.“