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January 23, 2013

Area officials: School aid likely not enough to cover mandated costs

By Mark Boshnack
The Daily Star

---- — Don’t expect the upcoming school budget season to be any better than last year, area school officials said after hearing Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposals for aid to education.

The state aid totals were released late Tuesday following the 2013-14 budget proposal. Several local officials said they were not yet certain how their district would fare when the proposals are fully analyzed, but the aid will not be enough to meet mandated cost increases in such areas as employee retirement services and health insurance.

The total year-to-year increase proposed for schools is $889 million, or 4.4 percent. This includes a $611 million increase, or 3 percent increase, in general school aid.

Another $203 million, or 1 percent increase, is in recognition of extraordinary increases in fixed costs, such as mandated growth in pension costs, according to media release from Cuomo’s office.

At Unatego Central School, business manager Nicholas Rosas said the proposed $379,606 increase is still being analyzed to see if it is accurate. While some of the money that the state has subtracted from school aid in previous years to balance its budget has been restored, “there is still a long way to go before he can understand how accurate the numbers are,” he said.

Proposals Cuomo has made to help with retirement costs might be helpful, Rosas said. He said he was still waiting to see the details in that area as well.

But whatever the outcome, the budget season will be harder because the district is running out of areas to cut after several years of state aid reductions, Rosas said. Last year to keep within the state’s tax cap, the district consolidated its two elementary schools, he said.

“Everything is on the table this year” when those discussions begin, Rosas said, including nonmandated services and closing Otego

Elementary School.

To help address the issue of state funding, a meeting of the Unatego Save Our Schools group will be held 7 p.m. Tuesday in the high school auditorium. The school will look to the community group to take the message about more equitable state aid for area schools to the legislature, he said.

At Delaware Academy Central School in Delhi, Superintendent Jason Thomson said the proposed state aid increase is $49,184.

“We understand that we have do more with less,” in the current economy, he said. But with a variety of costs increasing about $500,000, the budget season will be difficult, he said.

The district was able to keep taxes below the state’s 2 percent spending cap and reduce the overall spending last year by a variety of methods, included teacher givebacks and staffing cuts through attrition, Thomson said. He was not sure how much longer that can be done without cutting programs.

It’s too early to tell what Cuomo’s proposals for mandate relief mean for area districts, he said. That has potential to help, Thomson said, but “we need more details to understand what the impact will be.”

With the cut of $58,509 proposed for Sidney Central School, Superintendent Bill Christensen said the budget season will be “challenging.” He will be looking for details to determine exactly how the district will be impacted by all the proposals, but it was better than the cut of several hundred thousand the district absorbed following the “alleged” 2012-13 state increase, he said.

He was glad to see an acknowledgement of the mandated costs districts are facing. More needs to be done about the inequality in funding between upstate and downstate schools that heavily favors the latter, he said.

The district will again resort to a variety of strategies to close the $600,000 gap the school faces just to break even with its necessary expenses. The district will be able to do that with increased efficiencies and the use of fund balance but, “you can only do that for so long,” he said. That was the same strategy the district used to reduce taxes the last two years.

He said he will be looking into funding for several initiatives proposed by Cuomo that the school is already involved with, such as pre-kindergarten and all-day kindergarten, to see if they qualify.

He said he will have a better idea about what projected taxes will be in 2013-14 when school health care costs are received in the near future.