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School spending proposals vary as state aid increases

The budget picture in many school districts this year looks a little less bleak.

The state coughed up more aid. The cost of teacher pension contributions will drop. Deep cuts made by school boards in recent years have taken hold.

And school leaders are beginning to cautiously predict an end to the budget panic that drove school boards to slash everything from gifted programs to music classes in recent years.

“It seems like maybe we’re finally coming out of an extended period of fiscal stress,” Williamsville Superintendent Scott Martzloff said. “At least some districts are.”

The last six years saw budget cuts in schools throughout the region as districts furiously shed jobs and cut extras to make up for lost state aid, declining enrollment and rising costs.

This year is different.

While school leaders are still cutting back to balance the books, even those proposing to lay off teachers and other staff in 2015-16 see a future in which their budgets begin to stabilize.

“The sense of urgency in this budget was rounding the corner fiscally, building a foundation for the future,” Frontier Superintendent Bret Apthorpe said. “The board wants to be done with this reduction business.”

Residents in suburban districts next Tuesday will vote on school budgets for 2015-16. Those spending proposals show suburban districts in Erie and Niagara counties face a wide range of financial situations.

Some still face deep cuts. Niagara Falls is considering shedding 45 jobs and cutting modified sports. West Seneca will lay off up to 26 people as it closes an elementary school and addresses a budget gap.

Some are cautiously bringing back programs cut in the aftermath of the recession. Fifth-graders in Williamsville will once again learn Spanish and French, and Williamsville kindergarten classes will get smaller. Clarence will add more librarians and teachers to help students struggling to meet learning standards.

Many districts are stuck somewhere in the middle, cutting jobs and trimming expenses as enrollment shifts, while using extra state aid to restore items they had feared would have to go.

In East Aurora, for example, the district was able to hold off cutting a school resource officer and trimming the hours of the elementary school librarian after state lawmakers came through with extra aid and School Board members made other budget adjustments. But difficult cuts are still in East Aurora’s budget proposal, including in areas like technology and music. In Frontier, schools officials earlier this year thought they would have to cut the equivalent of 16 full-time jobs, but were able to whittle that down to about 10.

While increasing expenses and declining enrollment shape local school budgets, state aid has been at the heart of the rallying cry from suburban school districts this spring. That’s because they’ve seen the state pull back on funding for schools since 2009 at the same time the state imposed a cap on local property taxes and increased the demands on school districts. The combination left many area districts struggling to balance budgets.

In the years since, local taxpayers have been steadily picking up more of the tab for suburban schools. Five years ago, suburban taxpayers in Erie and Niagara counties paid about the same amount for local schools as the state contributed. Today, those property owners pay almost $5 for every $4 the state spends on local schools.

Many superintendents remain concerned that the state continues to enact a formula, known as the Gap Elimination Adjustment, that takes back promised state aid from school districts. Originally designed to help the state close budget gaps in 2009 and 2010, the state aid reduction has remained in the years since.

“I do think that until the Gap Elimination Adjustment is gone and there’s a commitment by the state to fund education, things are still a bit tenuous and in jeopardy,” Martzloff said.

Robert N. Lowry Jr., deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents, said the focus on the Gap Elimination Adjustment has prevented the state from developing a more predictable school funding formula as it had attempted to create in 2007 before the recession and the state’s budget crisis.

“There can be improvements and there should be,” Lowry said of the way the state distributes aid. “I think someone coming here from another state would find it astonishing that schools don’t have aid formulas that they can count on from year to year.”

School districts across the region are still feeling the fallout of state aid that has grown slower than school leaders had hoped.

In East Aurora, the School Board has proposed a budget for 2015-16 that reduces overall spending. But to balance the budget, the amount of property taxes collected will continue to increase and other cuts will be made.

“Yes, we got additional state aid, but over the last seven years, we’ve been using our fund balance and reserves to keep positions in place,” said East Aurora School Business Manager Paul Blowers. “Our budget is actually going down next year, but we still had to make cuts.”

Because state aid is distributed based on district wealth and other factors, East Aurora did not get as much help from the state in 2015-16 as officials had hoped.

“We just miss the boat on some of these dollars,” said Colleen Klimchuck, principal of Parkdale Elementary School. “It just eats away at us. We’re a high-performing district, but we’re constantly losing funding to support some of those extras that we used to do.”

Klimchuck was relieved when East Aurora school officials were able to pull back on a proposal to cut her school librarian to half time next year.

Superintendents also worry that state aid increases for next school year are tied to a new teacher evaluation system that districts must negotiate this summer. Other state mandates, including how districts teach students who are still learning English, will continue to cost districts more money next year.

“People feel good that there is an increase, but at the same time, they’re a little skeptical based on what it’s connected to – the strings attached and what the governor is going to come up with next,” Martzloff said.

News Staff Reporter Barbara O’Brien contributed to this report. email: djgee@buffnews.com