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March 28, 2013

School officials: State budget could be worse

By Mark Boshnack
The Daily Star

---- — While area school leaders were glad Wednesday that school aid in the upcoming state budget will be more than was initially expected, several said tough choices still lie ahead. Some added that the totals were likely inflated compared to what they’ll actually receive.

With the state Senate approving the budget Wednesday morning and the Assembly soon due to take up the bills approved by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders last week, the aid figures were released Tuesday night. A budget is expected by the Monday deadline.

The state is providing $21.2 billion in aid to education in 2013-14, an increase of $936 million over last year and $436 million more than Cuomo’s executive budget proposed at the start of the budget process. Schools have to approve a budget that will be decided by voters in each district May 21.

“We won’t have to go as deep” in planning further cutbacks, Oneonta City School District interim Superintendent David Rowley said, because of more than $500,000 in additional state aid his district will receive compared to Cuomo’s original proposal. “This is far better than what I thought we would get.”

The district will receive an additional $602,000 for a total of about $11 million, the total for all schools mentioned is without building aid, as compared to 2012-13, according to state aid runs.

The Oneonta City School District had approved moving sixth grade to the middle school and is considering a number of staff cuts to close what appeared to be a $1.5 million budget gap resulting from decreases in state funding over several years.

The additional aid won’t change the plans discussed, but “this will change our thinking about further cuts,” he said. “It’s a huge benefit.”

He thanked Sen. James Seward, R-Milford, and Assemblyman Bill Magee, D-Nelson, for their continued support. He also thanked other legislators who heard the problems of area schools that were affected by the earlier projections. “This is good news,” he said.

“Making sure our schools have the funding they need to provide our children with a quality education is one of my top priorities,” Magee said in a media release. Seward said as a member of the joint budget conference committee on education he has worked hard to boost school funding.

“I fought to ensure local schools received their fair share of state aid this year, and were better positioned for future years as well,” he said.

Franklin Central School Superintendent Gordon Daniels said his district will be getting about $150,000 more than expected. It will receive a total $277,000 increase, for a total of $3.1 million. This will help restore the full-time principal position, which is necessary with the state-mandated teacher evaluation system, as well as restore a full-time Spanish position. Both were cuts made a couple of years ago that helped the district prevent its budget gap from growing bigger, he said.

At Delaware Academy Central School, Superintendent Jason Thomson said the district will get about $161,000 more than was anticipated. The total increase is $210,000 for a total of $6 million in state aid for 2013-14.

“We are are happy to see more than expected but we have to be very realistic and cautious,” he said. Factors that go into this decision include the knowledge that the state required teacher and employee retirement payments and health insurance will continue to rise, while the state property tax cap limits revenues other than state aid. At the same time, the district has lost millions of dollars in state aid in the last five years.

“We have to spend this carefully — we don’t know if its a one-time opportunity,” so the budget approved to go before voters will not change, he said. It calls for a 2 percent tax levy increase and cuts of six staff.

“Our legislators have been strong advocates for us,” he said. “It will help, but it won’t solve all our problems.”

Unatego Central School budget manager Nicholas Rosas said “now that we have real numbers we will start the hard work.” The district will receive $10.7 million — a $605,000 increase. The additional $250,000 the district will receive means it is better off, but still faces a $1.2-$1.4 million budget gap, Rosas said.

“It will help us close the gap but it won’t solve all the problems,” he said. Some of the possible cuts that have been identified include closing Otego Elementary School and cutting some athletic or extracurricular activities. Anything that is not required would be on the table, he said.