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Another Voice: State should repay ‘loan’ taken from school districts

By Jane Burzynski

The Buffalo News editorial, “Tough choices ahead,” on school finance draws attention to important issues, but is a bit short on some information.

School districts lost billions of dollars in revenues under the Gap Elimination Adjustment and the denial of Foundation Aid as designated by the state aid formula.

The much-touted state aid “increases” could more accurately be characterized as a partial return of monies to school districts as a result of those cutbacks. Essentially, local districts provided an interest-free loan to the state from 2007-08 to present.

This forced “loan” cost school districts fund balances, programs and, locally, more than 1,300 jobs, hurting regional economies and diminishing opportunities for students.

School boards are obligated to both taxpayers and students and must balance both fiduciary and educational responsibilities. These obligations are outlined in law and by court decisions and written into regulations by state and federal governments.

Although community expectations may carry additional demands, costs are primarily driven by extensive legal, educational and operational mandates, unfunded and partially funded by intrusive state government and, to a lesser degree, federal government.

With the state now operating on a surplus, it’s time to repay the “loan”:

• Increase Foundation Aid to legally obligated levels. Erie County school districts have lost nearly $2 billion in Foundation Aid since 2007-08.

• Repeal the Gap Elimination Adjustment (GEA). Erie County school districts have lost more than $500 million to the GEA – and the state continues to take money to fill a gap that no longer exists.

It’s also time for real mandate relief. When the tax cap was implemented, significant mandate relief was promised, but never delivered. Although more politically volatile, this would be the more effective solution to high taxes.

As for the tax cap, local taxes are the revenue of last resort. No school district wants to raise them. Most school districts didn’t exceed the cap even before there was a limit. The cap manages to redirect responsibility for taxes squarely onto the school district, yet districts only tax to secure revenues not provided by the state.

Understanding how school systems work, the rules and expectations that govern them, the mandates they must fund, their sources of revenue and how those revenues are distributed statewide will yield better understanding of these ongoing calls for equity, adequacy, sustainability and predictability in public school funding.

Jane Burzynski is director of programs and services for the Erie County Association of School Boards.