14.03.2012 Musings from a School Board Member No Comments

State Aid “Increase” is in the Eye of the Beholder

Forgive me, both for its length and for getting a little “wonky,” with this month’s commentary. But I feel as though, as a taxpayer and citizen of NYS and our school district, you need to be aware of issues that could directly threaten our district’s ability to provide the quality of education, programming, and services to our students and community you’ve come to expect.

On January 17, Gov. Andrew Cuomo unveiled his Executive Budget Proposal for 2012–2013.

The Good: The governor fulfilled his promise to increase money for schools, by 4 percent ($805 million). Funding is better than what most districts got last year, when aid was slashed to offset the state’s massive budget gap.

The Bad: Not all of that money will be distributed to schools in the form of aid. Some $250 million would go into a competitive grants program for schools, and most school districts, like Tully, will not be able to apply for it.

The Ugly: Rather than an increase in aid, Tully’s initial estimate is for a decrease in our State Aid of almost $29,000.

BENEATH THE SURFACE

Excluding $250 million set aside for the competitive grants program and another $92 million that’s set aside as reimbursable building aid to districts, approximately $460 million is available for aid increases. If the governor’s budget proposal goes through, as is, “below-average wealth” districts such as Tully, are supposed to receive 51% of this, or just under $235 million. The average increase for these 454 lower-wealth districts is almost $517,000. Would that this were true for us! But alas, it’s not.

But the puzzling distribution of this aid is even more unequal, I fear. When I dig a little deeper, the inequities that have pervaded the State Aid distribution formulae, favoring higher-wealth districts, are further compounded with this proposal. The 223 districts that are considered “above-average wealth” will share a little over $225 million, for an average of over $1,000,000 each. (And, when I say “above-average,” I don’t mean districts such as F-M or Skaneateles, local districts that we’d consider higher-wealth; through the Looking Glass that is NY State Aid for Education, these districts are in the “average” category.)

Compounding the decrease we’ll be facing if the governor’s proposal remains unchanged, school districts are set to lose emergency federal jobs money that masked the effects of state aid cuts over the past three years, which is due to run out in 2012. For Tully, this is over $440,000. In addition, due to a change in the way tax receipts are shared, our school district will see a decrease in the sales tax revenue it receives from Onondaga County, of $10,000.

So we’re looking at total decreases in revenue from governmental sources outside of our district of nearly $500,000.

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR OUR DISTRICT?

“Simply stated, the governor’s proposal and the budget ‘increases’ fall short—way short—of what districts need following the drastic cuts of the two previous years,” says Dr. Rick Timbs, executive director of the Statewide Schools Finance Consortium. Competing for funds? That’s a vague, un-tested idea, Timbs says. “Competing is what schools usually do on the playing field and in the gymnasium. Competing for the funds needed to ensure children get a sound, basic education and a fair shot at the future? We call that unfair,’’ Timbs said at an issues training session in advance of this year’s annual Legislative Breakfasts, co-sponsored by the Central New York School Boards Association (CNYSBA). “It’s also unnecessary. How do you build a budget for a community vote in May when you don’t know if you’re going to get the money? There’s going to be a real problem come budget time. Three-quarters of our (low wealth/high need) districts are going to have a hole in their budget.’’ “One thing seems certain,” according to the CNYSBA: “The road to a school budget proposal and vote could be long, bumpy and emotional, as district officials and Board of Education members wrestle with dwindling funding—as well as budget implications brought about by the tax levy cap enacted last summer—to come up with a plan.”

What can you do? It’s critical for us to keep you informed about funding and aid developments—and how they will hit home—as they become available. Check the school website for up-to-date information. It also is critical for parents, teachers, community stakeholders, and other interested parties to attend school budget and Board of Education meetings. Get in on the dialogue early and stay informed of the issues.

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