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March 1, 2014

State's budget gimmick is hindering schools

By Ed Fersch and Lee Austin Local Commentary
The Daily Star

---- — Recently, the Margaretville and Roxbury boards of education joined their colleagues across the region and throughout the state in adopting a resolution calling on the state legislature to end the so-called “gap elimination adjustment.”

This aspect of the state budget affects every taxpayer in New York State. Unfortunately, it is not widely understood.

The GEA was established in 2010 near the end of then-Gov. David Paterson’s only term in office. At the time, the state was facing a severe financial crisis. There was a sizeable “gap” between the state’s income and its expenses.

One of the solutions to eliminate this gap was to reduce each school district’s allotment of state aid. Schools struggled that year, but we understood the severity of the crisis and did our part to help New York’s long-term fiscal survival. Now, four years later, the GEA has become a fixture in the state budget.

New York’s Constitution gives every child the right to a sound basic education. In order to ensure that there is a basic level of spending on education in each school district, the state supplements local property taxes with state aid. The amount of aid each district receives is based on its relative wealth — more goes to those districts that are less able to raise funds locally.

The Roxbury and Margaretville school districts, along with every other district in our region, are dependent on state funding for a sizeable portion of their budgets. Approximately thirty percent of the funds used in each of our districts comes from New York State.

The GEA reduces the amount of aid received by school districts. The reduction is not a flat dollar amount. Rather, it is a proportion of aid each district was slated to receive based on the state aid formulas. Thus, the more dependent a community is on state funds for the operation of its school, the more money was withheld to balance the state budget.

Since its inception in 2010, schools across our region have seen their state funding reduced by millions of dollars. Margaretville Central School has lost $2,367,800; Roxbury’s aid has been cut by $1,225,847. There are only two ways to deal with this loss of funding: raise property taxes to make up for the deficit or reduce spending by eliminating educational opportunities for our children. Our districts have done a bit of both. Local taxes have gone up more than they would have in the absence of the GEA, and programs have been reduced or eliminated.

Now, four years after the budget crisis, Gov. Cuomo is telling us that the state will soon be in a budget surplus. His budget proposal for 2014-15 includes a number of tax reductions. And yet, it also includes a continuation of the GEA.

If the state can afford tax reductions, there is no gap in the budget. If there is no gap, there is nothing to eliminate, therefore there is no need to adjust funding for education. Simply put, there is no longer a need for the GEA.

The resolution adopted by the Margaretville and Roxbury boards of education calls upon the legislature to adopt a budget that doesn’t include the GEA. Schools across the state have done their part to help New York out of the financial crisis. It’s time to return to the state aid formulas as the basis for funding education in New York State.

These formulas exist so that less well-off districts can provide their students with the same educational opportunities available to children growing up in more affluent communities. For too long, we have struggled to keep property taxes within the tax levy limit while at the same time trying to maintain our programs.

School Boards across the state have been lobbying their legislators in an attempt to immediately end the GEA. So far, this effort has not been successful. Our children and children all across New York State who live in areas which are dependent on state funding to provide them a sound basic education cannot wait another year. Funding needs to be restored to the level promised by the formulas now.

It is time to end the GEA. We encourage citizens to join us in this effort by letting your legislators know your concerns about this issue.

Lee Austin is president of Margaretville Central School Board of Education, and Ed Fersch is president of Roxbury Central School Board of Education.