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Between a rock and a hard place; School districts are facing cuts in state aid with the likelihood of a property tax cap

School officials in Niagara County share the same worry: Education may never be the same.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's proposal to strip $1.5 billion in state aid from school budgets across New York State next year translates locally to cuts of more than 10 percent of state funding in all but two Niagara County districts.

And, coming the following year, there is the prospect of a 2 percent cap on property tax increases.

"You're going to see a lot of programs eliminated, a lot of staff reductions," said Clark Godshall, superintendent of Niagara-Orleans Board of Cooperative Education Services. "In terms of tax increases, there's no other option."

Most districts admit a tax increase for their 2011-12 spending proposals is likely, ranging from 2 percent to 5 percent.

Reductions in staffing for services like libraries, guidance offices, academic intervention and prekindergarten are viable options for the cutting block in all districts.

Royalton-Hartland faces a 5 percent tax increase even with no increase in expenditures.

Niagara Falls hasn't had a property tax increase in 17 years, a streak it's fighting to maintain this year.

Barker is hoping not to see an increase, thanks in part to a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreement with AES Somerset power plant, the largest taxpayer in the county. And Newfane hopes to maintain the current levy, but it may require reorganizing the district or closing the Early Childhood Center. Last week, the School Board talked about the possibility of 12 layoffs.

"All of us are losing state aid by the millions," said Starpoint Superintendent C. Douglas Whelan. "There is no other revenue that can make that up. It's having an effect on the levy to be able to survive."

Lewiston-Porter is looking at cutting athletic programs and extracurricular activities with low participation.

North Tonawanda may give up its freshman sports teams. The district also may cut 12 positions at the high school.

Wilson may cut 18 positions across the district, and Lockport, which cut 37 positions last year, stands to lose at least another 30.

"The governor's proposal has been devastating," said Carl Millitello, superintendent of Niagara Wheatfield. "These cuts in revenue will really cripple public education, and I have long-term concerns about schools being able to provide quality education."

Most districts plan to tap into their fund balances -- surpluses -- to help bridge the gap, as well as use leftover funds from the federal Education Jobs Act.

Millitello hopes to maintain his district's 4 percent fund balance into next year, and he said using those funds now "would not be financially frugal."

His team is using a zero-based budget plan. Essentially, officials started by cutting all programs and are now adding them back to the budget one by one based on what is "absolutely necessary for children."

The working budget plan in Niagara Falls already requires depleting all $2.5 million of its reserves. That's after banking on the State Legislature's upping the governor's state aid proposal when the final budget is unveiled. Both the Senate and Assembly are looking at slight increases. The Falls district hopes for an extra $1.5 million.

That may help some for another year, but a property tax cap the governor has proposed would force school districts across the state to address budget realities well into the future.

"You can only sustain for so long," said Roy-Hart Superintendent Kevin MacDonald. "Next year looks bleak, and it could be the end of reserve funds if things keep going the way they are."

Districts including Barker, Niagara Wheatfield, North Tonawanda and Lew-Port had hoped to find savings by sharing administrative positions, but this year's hype over "consolidation" is dying out.

The governor proposed removing financial incentives for sharing services, Godshall said, causing many superintendents to step away from the idea since savings aren't usually realized until the long-term.

Even with the incentives in place, the Barker district, for instance, recently decided to shelve a merger idea with neighboring Lyndonville.

Niagara Falls has already enacted a spending freeze, hoping to find savings. Niagara Wheatfield won't be making any new equipment purchases. And Lew-Port plans to reduce its budget for supplies.

"At this point," MacDonald said, "the best thing the state could do is look at equities in cuts and get us an on-time budget so we all know what we're dealing with."

e-mail: niagaranews@buffnews.com

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