‘Give The Problem Back’

MAYVILLE – For Dr. Rick Timbs, the severe financial stress felt by school districts statewide can be summed up in three words: gap elimination adjustment.

On Thursday, members of the Chautauqua County School Boards Association convened at Webb’s Captain’s Table Restaurant for a presentation in which Timbs, executive director of the Statewide School Finance Consortium, outlined the basis behind districts’ money woes at the state level.

“We can no longer sustain the current cuts called the gap elimination adjustment,” Timbs said.

First implemented in the 2010-11 school year, the gap elimination adjustment acts as a reduction of state aid that had been previously guaranteed to schools in the form of Foundation Aid – which promised an annual aid increase to all school districts but has been frozen since 2009-10 as a result of the economic recession. For the past two years, the state has been decreasing districts’ gap elimination adjustments in what is being called a gap elimination adjustment restoration.

Timbs said the state has been passing these “restorations” off as state aid increases despite the fact that it is only returning money that should have been paid to schools years ago, and is doing so in insignificant amounts.

“They’re inequitable, unfair and make it so these school districts cannot operate properly,” he said. “The state has done nothing to remedy the situation in a meaningful way. And, simultaneously, all they have done is heap down additional mandates that have costs attached to them.”

Using projected data based on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposed 2014-15 executive budget, Timbs indicated that Chautauqua County schools will have lost out on a total of $86,077,798 over a five-year period – with a total of $9.8 billion withheld from schools statewide. Meanwhile, the state owes its schools a total of $5.4 billion in promised Foundation Aid.

Timbs pointed out that, as a result of perpetually frozen Foundation Aid, the funding gap is widening between wealthier districts with larger tax bases and smaller, rural districts. Timbs said smaller schools will be hard-pressed to survive another three years under the status quo, and they can likely only hope to offset the funding lost through the gap elimination adjustment through three methods: cutting teaching positions, cutting programs or transferring money from their capital reserve fund and placing it into appropriated fund balance – which leaves no money for any unforeseen expenditures or capital projects.

Timbs said the trick is going to be getting state government officials to understand the disparity in funding to districts, and somehow achieve consistency through it all.

“I think we need a balance,” Timbs said. “If (the state) provides the funding, schools can accomplish great things. But the funding has to be distributed statewide so it’s equitable, and so what we aren’t doing is simply sending more money to the wealthiest districts while the districts that struggle because of low incomes and property values are unable to provide for the mission for their children.

“Clearly, lower wealth, and even average wealth districts, are seriously disadvantaged. What has to happen is the legislature has to find a way. They got us into this situation, they have to get us out of it,” he added.

Timbs suggested superintendents and board members pass the information onto their respective community members to help them understand the how and why behind the dire financial situation faced by schools.

“This is like the best kept secret in Chautauqua County,” he said. “You’ve got to get the word out. Other people are making their problem into your problem. My suggestion to you is: give the problem back.”

The next meeting of the Chautauqua County School Boards Association will be held May 8 at Moonbrook Country Club. The guest speaker will be John Sipple of the Rural Schools Association.