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Schools: Cuomo’s state aid increase still won’t help us

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Despite Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s promise in Tuesday’s budget address to increase funding for education, some local school districts say they are not receiving enough state aid to fund even basic services.

Mr. Cuomo’s budget includes a 4.4 percent increase to school aid across the board, but how the money is doled out is highly variable, and the continuing Gap Elimination Adjustment has forced schools to drain their fund balances.

The Gap Elimination Adjustment is a portion of state aid used to offset the state’s deficit.

At Ogdensburg City School, Superintendent Timothy M. Vernsey said he has already cut right to the bone.

“I’ve already cut more than 60 positions [since 2007],” Mr. Vernsey said. “I can’t do that anymore.”

In his Executive Budget, Mr. Cuomo proposed an additional 10.9 percent in state aid to Ogdensburg, totaling $2,304,797. But the lion’s share of that sum will be directly funneled into paying for the school’s capital building project.

“All we do with the building aid is pay our debt service for the project. That’s no money to us,” Mr. Vernsey said.

Taking that out of the equation, Ogdensburg is looking at a 1.15 percent increase in state aid over last year. That equals $225,996.

“That doesn’t go anywhere towards solving any kind of fiscal crisis that we’re in,” Mr. Vernsey said.

Jeffrey R. Swanson, city school district business manager, said the school applied a large portion of its fund balance to close the budget for 2012-2013, expecting to receive a 3 percent state aid increase this year.

At the beginning of the 2012-2013 fiscal year, Ogdensburg had a fund balance of $4.2 million.

“We appropriated $2.3 million this year,” Mr. Swanson said. “We’re probably only going to be able to appropriate $1.4 million [next year].”

Add the increasing costs of pensions and health insurance, and Ogdensburg is looking at a shortfall of $2.5 million to $3 million in the 2013-2014 budget, Mr. Vernsey said.

“The whopping $225,000 increase in state aid doesn’t do anything for us,” Mr. Vernsey said.

Mr. Swanson in the fall predicted the school had roughly two years before it is financially insolvent. Now, he said, he is going to have to revise his prediction downward in light of the governor’s proposal.

It’s the same story at Heuvelton Central School, where Superintendent Susan E. Todd said the proposed increase in state aid won’t cover rising operational costs.

The extra money “in no way will balance the increase in costs that naturally arise from running a school district,” Mrs. Todd said.

While she does not yet know the final cost of pensions, staff pay increases and health insurance, Mrs. Todd said those increasing costs will far outstrip the $339,795, or 5.16 percent, increase Heuvelton will get this year.

Heuvelton has lost five positions over the past five years to attrition, and Board of Education President Michael J. Davis said the district’s fund balance is project to last another four to five years before it’s tapped out.

Mr. Vernsey and Mrs. Todd say much of the crisis boils down to the Gap Elimination Adjustment.

“New York state has been trying to balance its budget by taking some of the money that it normally gives to schools,” Mrs. Todd said.

Starting in 2010, the state essentially reduced foundation aid across the state in order to help close the state’s multibillion-dollar deficit.

“It was a [$10 billion gap the state] had in their budget, so they said, ‘we’re going to split it up amongst the districts. We’ll save money by giving everybody less,’” Mr. Swanson said.

Federal stimulus money helped local schools close the funding gap until last year.

“Because of the Gap Elimination Adjustment, we’re still back at the funding levels of 2009-2010,” Mr. Vernsey said, adding that the state managed to close last year’s $10 billion deficit.

“They only have a $1.3 billion deficit. Had [Mr. Cuomo] even just wiped out the Gap Elimination Adjustment and given us no aid, I probably would have said, oh, thank you,” Mr. Vernsey said.

Mr. Cuomo’s budget plan does reduce the amount of money that is pulled from schools this year through gap elimination, but not by a substantial amount said Mr. Vernsey.

Mr. Vernsey said roughly 66 percent of Ogdensburg’s budget is state-funded, a figure that is generally matched by Heuvelton and Morristown Central School.

“Our tax base is so low, you raise your taxes 2 percent, that only adds $180,000 to our budget,” Mr. Swanson said.

Mr. Vernsey said, “If state aid isn’t going to increase, at least by as much as your costs increase, there is no way you can sustain this.”

And even if the school were to raise taxes, because of the 2 percent property tax cap enacted in 2011, any increase over 2 percent would have to be voted on by the public and passed by a 60 percent supermajority.

“We’re pretty proud of the fact that we’ve stayed within the tax cap legislation for the last two years. And we will continue to try and do that again this year,” Mr. Vernsey said. “But our first responsibility is to try and provide a proper education for our children.”

David J. Glover, superintendent of Morristown Central School, said his school is also down to the wire. In Mr. Cuomo’s proposal, Morristown will see a .26 percent increase in state aid totaling $10,809.

“We’re to the point that we’ve cut all we can cut,” Mr. Glover said. Morristown cut 5 positions last year alone and Mr. Glover predicted the school is four years away from fiscal insolvency.

“The only thing left that we can do is cut personnel and programs,” Mr. Vernsey said. “If this continues, every district, especially the poorest of districts, will have nothing left for kids. The students are the ones who are getting shortchanged. I think the state is shirking their constitutional obligation to provide a sound, basic education.”

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