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SCHOOLS BRACE FOR CUTS AS STATE TIGHTENS BELT 8-YEAR TIDE OF RISING AID EBBING

After an eight-year torrent, state aid to school districts is drying up as the state faces another multibillion-dollar deficit.

In school districts where teachers already have received large salary increases -- fed by the 94 percent hike in state aid over those eight years -- programs may have to be cut and teachers laid off, if school aid drops off significantly next year.

Meanwhile, teachers in Buffalo and 10 other districts are worried that upcoming contracts could be limited by a downturn in state aid.

When asked his advice on the dilemma, Gov. Cuomo said, "Be fair. Be realistic."

Teachers want fairness -- increasing salaries to match those in neighboring districts.

However, school officials want realism -- limiting salaries if the new era of less state aid begins.

Administrators are worried that fact finders assigned to assist contract negotiations will ignore changes in state aid and recommend that teacher salaries continue to grow by 8 to 11 percent, according to Edward Sakowski, executive director of the Erie County School Boards Association.

"I think it's going to make negotiations tougher," Eden School Superintendent Donald Fregelette said. "I think everybody recognizes that (during the next round of contract talks) the employees are going to say they don't want to fall behind their neighboring districts simply because those districts negotiated their contracts last year."

Ronald Uba, regional staff director of the New York State United Teachers, said his organization also "anticipate problems at the negotiating table."

"But any diminution of what we've been getting (in recent contracts) would fly in the face of all the claims and the agreed national agenda that education ought to be supported and, indeed, enhanced," he said.

Uba said he is skeptical of claims that salary increases depend on the level of state aid next year. He pointed out that at least five local districts cut their tax rates this year.

"If the school district isn't getting it from the state, they can get it from someplace else," he said. "The money's going to have to come from somewhere, and I don't think (changes in state aid) are going to deter us."

Although no one knows how next year's expected deficit will affect state aid to schools, sources in Albany say it is unlikely that such spending will be reduced, because it is important politically.

Instead, a smaller increase in state aid -- and possibly a reconfiguration of the school-aid formula -- will result.

Before this month, school districts, largely, have been immune from the state's budget problems. Then, Gov. Cuomo announced a plan to slice $200 million from the $9 billion school aid appropriated in this year's state budget.

Although Cuomo also is calling for another $800 million in cuts, including layoffs of state workers and reductions in virtually all government services, the proposed school aid cut may dominate the attention of state legislators.

The Legislature returns to Albany Monday to meet in special session to consider the governor's proposed budget cuts, as well as an extension of taxes for mass transit in the New York City area.

While the governor wants wealthier school districts to bear most of the $200 million reduction, Senate Republicans say that is unfair to many of the suburban schools they represent. If the Republican plan is accepted, Buffalo and other upstate cities would lose more aid than Cuomo proposed.

There are signs Senate Republicans could win concessions. One reason is that New York City would lose roughly the same amount of aid ($75 million) under both plans.

Likewise, state and school officials say these midyear cuts will not have a significant impact on school budgets.

Buffalo School Superintendent Albert Thompson said the district's $1.87 million loss proposed by Cuomo would mean cuts in school supplies -- not programs or teachers.

Despite a limited impact, the cuts disturb school officials. It would be the first time that state aid has been reduced in the middle of a school year.

But the prospects for next year's school aid also is grim. Major increases in state aid have helped increase salaries and other spending. But now, without further increases, schools could be pinched to meet their bigger budgets.

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