Education Increase Fails To Assist Area Schools

A $1.1 billion increase in education funding for New York state will do little to benefit the operation of area school districts.

The state budget, which was finalized late Monday evening, officially brought the state’s total support for public schools to $22.1 billion – but local school administrators say their districts are no better equipped to handle their own budgets.

The primary concern of superintendents comes in the form of a continuation of the gap elimination adjustment – a state-imposed annual reduction of school aid. As the executive budget was being constructed over previous months, the administrators had held out cautious optimism that the GEA’s fifth consecutive year of implementation would be its last.

Unfortunately, this scenario did not come to pass, forcing school officials to thoroughly examine ways to begin trimming expenditures in preparation for another year of lost aid. Instead, schools statewide have been receiving “additional” aid in annual GEA restoration payments.

Between these restoration payments and a miniscule increase of general aid through the state’s Foundation Aid Formula – which has been frozen in place since 2009-10 – all area schools did receive more funding over that of the previous year, but Stephen Penhollow, superintendent of Falconer Central School, said aid increases on paper can be deceiving.

“People misunderstand when you talk about an aid increase,” Penhollow said. “The dilemma (schools) face when we look at an increase in aid is that, while there is an increase from last year to this year, it’s still based on negative numbers as far as what we should be getting. As long as you see a GEA on any of our aid runs, that means the state is still taking money away from local, rural school districts.”

According to the aid runs based on the enacted 2014-15 budget, which were obtained from the website of state Sen. Catharine Young, Falconer’s overall aid will increase by $819,185, or 7.1 percent, from last year. Penhollow said the increase, while appreciated, doesn’t address the root of the problem.

“It’s a help, and we appreciate the efforts our local legislators put in to bring more funds into our local schools; but eliminating the GEA is something we really, truly needed this year, and we continue to make that a priority for the next budget season as well,” he said.

Of all area districts, the only one in which a negative aid differential was reflected in the aid runs was Bemus Point Central School – which showed a $494,327, or 11.1 percent, decrease over last year’s aid. Michael Mansfield, superintendent, explained that the differential is negative because of the closing of financing for capital projects from 1998-99.

He said Bemus Point will actually be receiving a $130,000 aid increase between GEA restoration and a foundation aid increase. However, the increase will do little to prevent the necessity of making cuts in order to survive another year of reductions.

“There wasn’t much money in GEA restoration left for those districts that are considered ‘average-need’ by the state, so we kind of ended up getting the short end of the stick in that regard,” Mansfield said. “When all this was said and done, it’s certainly a step in the right direction but we’re still facing a $166,000 budget gap that we need to close. We’re looking hard at doing anything we can to keep our programs. We have some retirements coming up, and we can eliminate those positions through attrition and possibly repurpose some people to cover that.”

Although the finalized state budget resulted in more than $400 million of additional education funds than was initially proposed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the bulk of the money is being appropriated in areas other than general education – such as the creation of a statewide full-day universal prekindergarten program and a tax reimbursement program that would reward schools and municipalities that manage to stay within a 2 percent cap on increases to their tax levies.

The deal also includes a $2 billion school technology bond act to go before voters in November.

Tim Mains, Jamestown Public Schools superintendent, said the willingness of the state Assembly and Senate to compromise for the sake of increasing education funding resulted in a fairly sizable aid increase for his district.

“I’m pleased that (the legislature) recognized the need to dramatically increase education funding,” Mains said. “I wish they had completely eliminated the GEA – so I’m concerned that we’re still fighting to get what is owed to us – but I think they certainly recognized the need, and they actually came out with a better product than I was expecting.”

Mains reported a GEA restoration of approximately $475,000, and a foundation aid increase of approximately $1.4 million for Jamestown. Despite this, he said JPS is still facing a more than $600,000 budget gap, and the elimination of the GEA would have covered that gap by bringing in an additional $500,000 in funding to the district.