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SCHOOL AID NOT JUST TIMELY, BUT BOUNTIFUL
STATE PROVIDES $59 MILLION, AN INCREASE OF 5.7%

Local schools received a double blessing Thursday when they learned of a state budget that was not only on time, but that brought districts more money than many had expected.

The package brings $34 million more to schools in Erie and Niagara counties than proposed by Gov. George E. Pataki. That boosts their total aid by $59 million from the current year, an overall increase of 5.7 percent.

"I'm pleasantly surprised the numbers came out as well as they did," said Hamburg School Superintendent Peter Roswell.

Suburban school officials say the punctual budget will take the guesswork out of their own budget planning. For the last two decades, school boards were forced to vote on budgets without knowing for sure how much state aid their districts were getting. That often left residents voting on school budgets without knowing the impact on taxes.

In January, the governor proposed a $526 million increase in school aid statewide. School officials estimated they would need $743 million to keep up with inflationary costs. The Legislature's aid package includes an increase of $848 million, bringing the total state aid for schools to $24.6 billion.

In Buffalo, the aid package from Albany reduces the projected 2005-06 budget gap to $17 million and moves the district within striking range of avoiding massive layoffs and program cuts.

Gary M. Crosby, the school system's chief financial officer, said state aid is $15 million higher than the package proposed by Pataki, and nearly cuts in half an earlier projected budget gap of $32 million.

The measure would increase the Niagara Falls School District's state aid by $1.7 million in 2005-06, boosting total funds to the county's largest school district from the $69.7 million the governor proposed to $71.4 million, according to the office of State Sen. George D. Maziarz, R-Newfane.

Many suburban districts are talking about using the extra funds to moderate their tax increases for 2005-06, while others say they will put the money in the bank to offset future tax increases. Schools also could add staff or programs to their budgets, though some officials say that this is unlikely in their districts because their budgets are already completed.

Cheektowaga School Superintendent Delia Bonenberger said she will recommend that the School Board use the additional state aid to trim the projected tax increase. Officials were estimating that taxes would go up 4.7 percent under the governor's proposal. The Legislature's package could bring that down to a 3.8 percent increase.

Lackawanna is in line to get an extra $405,000. School Superintendent Paul G. Hashem said the money would be best used by going into the bank to shore up the district's dwindling reserves.

Alden officials have put together a budget with a tax increase of less than 1 percent. The extra state money could be used either to bring the figure closer to zero, or to add positions that otherwise would not have been funded, according to School Superintendent Donald W. Raw Jr.

Most suburban school boards will make the final call next week, when many return from spring recess to adopt their budgets. A few will adopt their budgets during the week of April 11.

In Buffalo, Crosby said that it remains unclear what the smaller $17 million deficit would mean in terms of layoffs and programs cuts but that the additional aid is a "very good" development and leaves district officials with "a more workable situation."

He said district officials will continue to press district unions -- including the Buffalo Teachers Federation -- to agree to a single health insurance carrier, which would save $12 million next year.

The unions say they are willing to discuss a single carrier, but only in the context of broader contract negotiations.

With the health insurance savings, the district would reduce its gap to $5 million.

Niagara County's other nine school districts and the added state aid they will receive if the governor approves are: Barker, $129,915; Lewiston-Porter, $225,777; Lockport, $586,498; Newfane, $794,834; Niagara-Wheatfield, $421,170; North Tonawanda, $424,707; Royalton-Hartland, $151,812; Starpoint, $272,286; and Wilson, $381,364.

Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, D-Buffalo, said he is "absolutely thrilled" with the aid package for Buffalo, but finds it "despicable" that district unions are tying the single health insurance proposal to contract negotiations.

He said he is seeking ways to make further increases in state aid for Buffalo schools contingent on a health insurance agreement, which would save an estimated $27 million over two years.

Hoyt said the final aid package for Buffalo schools is $21 million more than the governor's proposal, but Crosby said that about $6 million of it is construction funding that the district had been assured of receiving.

News Staff Reporter Paul Westmoore contributed to this report.

e-mail: mpasciak@buffnews.com
and psimon@buffnews.com

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