Ask your local school representative how your district stands financially and they might compare it to a game of Jenga — the state keeps pulling funds, and the tower is about to topple.
Around 1,400 people on Thursday, Jan. 31, attended the regional event “Your Public Schools in Fiscal Peril — Running Out of Time and Options” featuring Statewide School Finance Consortium Executive Director Rick Timbs as the keynote speaker. Representatives from 49 school districts packed the auditorium at Columbia High School in East Greenbush, with an overflow room set up to carry a live stream of the event. Three area school superintendents spoke — Bob Horan of Schodack, Marie Wiles of Guilderland and Larry Spring of Schenectady — to shed light on rural, suburban and city districts respectively.
“The topic of funding public education at an equitable and fair level must be addressed if we desire to maintain an educational system that will graduate our youth with the knowledge to lead our country and compete in the world marketplace,” East Greenbush Superintendent Angela Nagle said during her opening remarks.
Timbs joked he didn’t expect a “Woodstock audience” and soon delved into a bevy of state funding data.
“I think we have tried to do those things to consolidate services and share, but it is becoming increasing evident that no matter how much we do that it really will not be enough to solve our fiscal problems,” Timbs said.
The combined wealth ratio used to distribute state aid is inequitable, according to Timbs. Most area school districts are near or below average wealth level, which is 1.0, with the highest combined wealth ratio in the state being 45 times more than the average.
Timbs balked at the wealthiest school district getting state aid, while other districts are suffering because “they used all their money.” Timbs said 100 or more school districts statewide would be fiscally insolvent in a year or two given current trends.
Schenectady City Schools Superintendent Laurence Spring said he discovered a “very disturbing fact” after looking into how the district only receives 54 percent of state aid it’s due.
“When you look at what percentage of districts are fully funded … the whiter the district, the more likely it is to be fully funded,” Spring said. “I think that is egregious in the year 2013.
Guilderland Central School District Marie Wiles said while suburban schools might appear to have “endless” resources, they are just as limited as urban and rural districts.
“In the absence of adequate state aid and any real, meaningful mandate relief our financial and educational insolvency is not a matter of if, but when,” Wiles said. “Our costs are increasing and our revenues are not.”
Wiles said the costs that are increasing are mandated costs, with little respite for the district.
School districts have also been inflicting damage on themselves, according to Timbs, because of the perception surrounding the state imposed tax cap being 2 percent and districts’ attempts to stay under it. After a district uses a formula to calculate the maximum property tax levy they can impose, it regularly comes out higher than 2 percent.
“School districts this year did not collect $139 million in eligible exemptions, because they were fearful they would lose their budget because the public is convinced it is a 2 percent tax cap,” Timbs said.
While state aid is increasing this year, Timbs said it isn’t enough to fill in what has been taken out through the gap elimination adjustment (GEA) used to help balance the state’s budget. He said the state would have to add back $5.52 billion in foundation aid and almost $2.16 billion in GEA cuts to restore aid levels to 2010-11 levels.
“We will be fully funded in foundation aid in only 50 years” Timbs said. “If we keep the rate of reducing the gap elimination adjustment, it is six years. If we just wait 56 years we have this thing solved … but that is only on average.”
Schodack Central School District Superintendent Robert Horan said maintaining programs is becoming a struggle. His biggest concern used to be if the districts’ students could compete around the state, but now it is just competing with schools locally.
“Our parking lots are riddled with potholes. We have septic systems that are 50 years old. We have leaky pipes in our basement. Maybe that is my fault because over the last few years all of our attention has been placed on programs for kids,” Horan said.