Closing The Gap

Administrative staff at Southwestern Central School district are expecting to see some changes to the status quo in the next state budget.

Over the past five years, the district has seen an overall decrease in its foundation aid – due to a statewide gap elimination adjustment – paired with an exponential rise in operating costs.

On Tuesday, the district’s Board of Education discussed heavily the numbers surrounding its 2013-14 budget, revenues and tax caps and levy. According to Maureen Donahue, SWCS superintendent, the biggest issue faced by the district is that of the foundation aid decrease.

“I think if you have to talk to the public or anybody about anything, it’s this,” said Donahue, addressing the board. “Our Foundation Aid is our major aid flow. We get money that comes in for transportation, special education, the federal lunch program and (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act sections) 611 and 619. And that’s what (the state) adds money to every year.”

Unfortunately, foundation aid, a 2007-enacted program which guaranteed yearly increases in state aid, has been at a standstill since 2009. After the economic collapse in late 2008, increases in the foundation aid were frozen and enacted state budgets further reduced state funding through gap elimination adjustments. These adjustments were alleviated through funds provided by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, but now those funds have been exhausted as well. This resulted in levels of state support for public schools in the 2012-13 school year being lower than in the 2008-09 school year, as well as foundation aid being $5.5 billion below its full implementation target.

Between the 2009 and 2010 school years, the newly implemented GEA reduced Southwestern’s funding from $6,016,884 to $5,077,402 – a $1,938,912, or 15.61 percent, funding decrease. While the GEA has been slightly reduced from year to year, the district’s 2013-14 funding is still estimated to be well below its 2009 level. The district expects a foundation aid amount of $5,523,244 for the 2013-14 school year.

Meanwhile, state-determined costs, such as teacher salaries and retirement packages, continue to increase. The district will see a 16.5 percent increase in teacher retirement services for next year.

“The first year (the state) put the gap elimination amount in, which was back in 2010-11, we were under the impression that was going to be a one-year deal that was basically a state aid cut,” said Donahue. “What they’ve done every year is not give us any new money – except for, last year, they split and gave us a little at the end onto the foundation. They’ve tried to decrease our gap elimination amount. So we have no new money. It’d be like if you have an account at home, but you have to give back every year.

“It’s not anything anybody in this room has created, it’s a state issue with how to fund these schools,” she added. “And that’s a critical piece of this. You can talk about the tax levy and how that’s going to affect us – but the bottom line is we’re working with the same numbers we had five years ago, with significant increases.”