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January 24, 2014

Cuomo's plans make some area schools cringe

By Mark Boshnack Staff Writer
The Daily Star

---- — Area school officials commenting on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s school aid proposals said Thursday they were largely disappointed with what they heard.

The process is not yet finished, and several of those interviewed expressed optimism that the final state budget, due April 1, will be an improvement. Schools present their budgets to voters in May.

The overall increase of $806.98 million to elementary and secondary school is a 3.83-percent increase over last year, according to the 2014-15 state executive budget presented by Cuomo on Tuesday. In addition, the budget supports initiatives for enhanced education technology, full-day pre-kindergarten and rewarding teacher performance.

“It’s a starting point,” said Oneonta City School District Superintendent Joseph Yelich, but it’s disappointing that such key categories as foundation aid, typically the largest aid category, will remain flat compared to 2013-14. The proposal calls for a $487,883 increase in Oneonta aid as compared to last year, which would be a 4.5-percent increase. The actual increase is still to be determined, a school official said.

Yelich said he was hopeful that with the state projecting a budget surplus, the so-called “gap elimination adjustment,” which withholds some state aid to help close state budget shortfalls, would be eliminated. The total Cuomo is proposing to withhold from Oneonta aid is about $1.5 million — a reduction of $167,476 from last year.

However, while the district faced a $1.5-million deficit going into that budget season, it is looking at a $400,000 deficit at this early stage in the process, Yelich said. After several years of cuts and changes to the district to meet budget challenges, he said, he was hopeful that programs would at least be maintained.

Yelich said he hasn’t yet seen information on funding universal pre-kindergarten, and said if it’s not fully funded it, such a goal will be difficult to achieve. Its early in the budget process and he will be meeting with legislators, he said, who will be weighing in on the issue before a state budget is approved.

“They will be advocates for our concerns,” he said.

State Sen. James Seward, R-Milford, said the end of the gap elimination adjustment is “my top priority” when it comes to this year’s educational funding. But that would take $1.6 billion, he said, and with Cuomo proposing $323 million toward that goal, “we have a long way to go.” At the least, Seward said, a significant portion could be reduced so it can be eliminated by next year at the latest.

As other parts of the budget are reviewed, more money could be found to direct to school aid, Seward said. He added that while universal prekindergarten is a worthy idea, he would hate to see it put current programs put at stake for lack of funding.

Seward said he has already met with the school officials, but now that Cuomo has issued his proposal, there will be more opportunities to meet before the legislature adds its plan. “We are early in the process, there are a lot of details to be worked out,” Seward said.

At Franklin Central School, Superintendent Gordon Daniels said that while the proposal looks “pretty good,” he expects the property tax cap to be about 1.46 percent — which, according to state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, is next year’s projected consumer price index.

That won’t provide much additional aid, he said. The Cuomo proposal calls for an increase of $192,529 without building aid, a 6.27-percent increase.

While the GEA has been reduced, the foundation aid is flat, Daniels said. An increase in cost-driven categorical aid, such as transportation, would help, he said. The school has taken such steps as staffing cuts and changes in insurance to weather the tough economic times, but “we need to be careful and frugal” in this year’s budget plan, he said.

Delaware Academy Central School Superintendent Jason Thomson said he was concerned that Cuomo is providing extra funds to new programs while “we are struggling to maintain what we have.” The district would receive an additional $100,179, a 1.69-percent increase.

A lot of the budget issues and concerns facing Delhi and other schools could be relieved with meaningful non-funded mandate relief, Thomson said, including extra audits and other administrative processes. All of the added assessments and changes to curriculum have largely been handled by the local districts, he said, without additional assistance, adding that state mandates in special education are also much greater than federal requirements.

“(Cuomo’s) focus is on new programs,” Thomson said. “We need to sustain what we have.”

It’s too early to tell if the district is in better shape than last year, he said, but the proposal is a starting point. He said he was looking forward to working with his state representatives, who have always been pro-education.

Sidney Central School Superintendent Bill Christensen said: “I am quite disappointed with the proposal.” His district is due to receive an increase of $396,000, or 3.15 percent, not including building aid. But necessary increases — payroll, insurance, and retirement costs — are expected to total almost $700,000 in 2014-15. With the talk of full-day pre-kindergarten, “we expected more,” he said, adding that pre-K alone will cost about $600,000.

If the gap elimination adjustment money were to be restored — a total of more than $600,000 — the situation would be different, he said. While the fiscal situation is about the same as last year at this time, this year’s shortfall could pose a problem, he sad, and the district will have to look at such things as borrowing or drawing from reserves if the situation doesn’t change.

The district has been economizing where it can, including trimming its staff through attrition, Christensen said.

“We take savings anywhere we can,” he said. Since the budget talks are preliminary, he said, he’s hopeful that legislators will understand the problem and help as they have in the past.

Unatego business manager Nicholas Rosas said: “I was a little disappointed,” with the flat foundation aid and continuation of the gap elimination adjustment, which totals almost $500,000 at this point. Overall, he said, the increase without building aid is $484,337, a 4.61-percent increase.

Most of that is in categorical aid, so that doesn’t necessarily mean more money for student programs. As in other districts, there were no specifics on funding pre-K, he said, and although it’s something the board would like to begin, he said until he sees more information he isn’t sure if it will be possible.