Several hundred million dollars in voter-approved school construction projects in Erie and Niagara counties could be delayed for a full construction season because of changes Gov. George E. Pataki is proposing in state building aid, local school officials say.
By changing the rules in the middle of the game, they charge, Pataki also could produce higher costs for badly needed classrooms, science labs, renovations to aging facilities and, in some cases, the construction of new schools.
In Niagara County's Starpoint Central Schools, a $57 million project to construct a new high school and renovate the district's existing facilities is in danger of missing a September 2002 completion date even before the first shovel hits the ground.
"That project is absolutely critical here," said Starpoint Superintendent C. Douglas Whelan. "We have an increasing enrollment and no place to put the children. He (Pataki) has got us in a very precarious situation."
Buffalo Schools Superintendent Marion Canedo said district officials are studying the possible impact of Pataki's plan on a $1 billion project to renovate all 80 existing schools and to build six new ones.
"We just got alerted to this, and we're concerned," she said. "I can't be real specific because we haven't had a chance to really digest the implications. It would be very disappointing if this affects our ability to do what we need to do."
Kevin Quinn, a spokesman for the state Division of the Budget, said the changes proposed by Pataki are designed to place limits on state building aid. Until now, he said, the state automatically provided aid for school building plans that gained technical approval by the state Education Department.
Under the present system, a plan to build a new planetarium would be viewed no differently than a proposal to replace a dangerous and outdated school building, Quinn said. Projects receive varying rates of reimbursement from the state, depending on district wealth and the nature of the building project.
"It's important that we begin to prioritize," Quinn said. "The growth in building aid is unsustainable at the current rate."
Even with the proposed limits, Pataki would spend $1.345 billion on school building aid, or more than the $1.17 billion spent last year, Quinn said. Without limits, he added, spending would increase to $1.65 billion.
Under Pataki's plan, priority would be given to projects that address health and safety issues; overcrowding; plans to renovate schools at least 40 years old; and physical changes made for instructional purposes.
"We think this is a proposal that would effectively target state funds for school construction to schools and areas that need it most," Quinn said. He said most states already place some limits on school building aid.
Local school officials said they are confident that the State Legislature will reject the plan, but are concerned that some version of it will be adopted in the future.
Their more immediate concern is the fate of many building projects recently passed by taxpayers, but not formally approved by the state Education Department prior to Jan. 15. Until Pataki's proposals are resolved, it remains unclear how much reimbursement those plans will receive, or whether they will receive any state funding at all.
School superintendents said many of the projects were spurred by a temporary state offer to boost building aid by 10 percent, yet are now in limbo. And they claim it is unfair to subject them to the proposed new rules, since they were drafted and approved by voters under the existing funding system.
Sweet Home Central Schools are in danger of delaying for a year a $29.4 million project that centers around major renovations to the high school.
"While the governor's proposal is out there on the table, we're frozen in place," said Superintendent James P. Sheehan. "We can't go out and do the project."
The delay would mean that students and teachers have to put up with outdated facilities for an additional year, and that rising costs resulting from the delay would force the district to scale down the project, Sheehan said.
Officials in many other school districts are taking the same approach.
"You're certainly going to be cautious about starting any project where funding is in question," said Jacqueline J. Paone, executive director of the Erie County Association of School Boards. "It's a real dilemma."
Local school officials are urging Pataki to withdraw his proposal, but that is considered unlikely. Instead, the issue could remain in limbo until there is a new state budget. While a spending plan is supposed to be adopted by April 1, passage is usually delayed for weeks or even months.
In a letter to Pataki, the Association of School Boards urged that districts not be kept in limbo that long. "We believe that New York State should be held accountable to make good on promises made," it said. "Please don't hold up needed construction projects by using building aid as a pawn in the budget game."