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Schools fight for share of $203 million; confusion over how funding will be doled out

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CANTON — Cash-strapped school districts want to know how the state will dole out $203 million in extra funding Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo earmarked in his 2013 budget.

But north country politicians said they still don’t yet have the answers school officials are looking for.

“The governor hasn’t provided the details we need on that,” said Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa. “Absent any thorough details, we have no idea how that will help.”

As they struggle to craft their 2013-14 school budgets, area superintendents don’t know whether to bank on extra state money that could save jobs and programs from the chopping block.

Gov. Cuomo’s budget earmarks $203 million in a fiscal stabilization fund that’s supposed to be used as “one-time financial relief” to school districts facing extraordinary increases in fixed costs, including pension contributions.

That fund is in addition to the $21 billion in state aid Gov. Cuomo has allocated to school districts in his proposed budget.

Canton School Superintendent William A. Gregory is predicting a $2.4 million funding gap next school year and said he hopes his district will get some relief.

The district has cut nearly 50 jobs in the past two years and could deplete the $730,000 that remains in its unrestricted fund balance.

Mr. Gregory and Canton School Board President Barbara B. Beekman are concerned that politics will play a large role in determining where the money goes.

“My personal fear is that this will happen behind the scenes,” Mrs. Beekman said. “All of a sudden there will be a done deal, and once again, we’re on the outside.”

Mr. Gregory said very few people, even at the state level, understand the complicated formulas that are used to distribute state money to public school districts.

“We need transparency in the process of how this extra money is going to be distributed,” he said.

Three factors should be considered when the state is reviewing a district’s level of fiscal distress, Mr. Gregory said.

Those are the per-student impact of the gap elimination adjustment, how much remains in a district’s fund balance and how many jobs have been eliminated in the past few years, he said.

Both Mrs. Russell and state Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, said they will push for a plan that funnels the stabilization money to districts that need it the most, including Canton and others in Northern New York.

“There is still ongoing discussions about how the $203 million will be spent,” Mrs. Ritchie said.

“I’ve been pushing for that money to be targeted to rural, high-needs schools. It is a priority for me to get as much school aid to my district as possible,” she said.

Several area school superintendents are scheduled to meet with Mrs. Russell on Thursday in Canton and with Mrs. Ritchie on Friday in Ogdensburg to discuss the school funding situation.

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