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Niagara Wheatfield school officials criticize cut in state aid

SANBORN – Niagara Wheatfield Central School District officials were critical Wednesday of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s proposed budget, which would cut the district’s state aid.

Both School Board President Steve Sabo and Superintendent Lynn Fusco warned that because of various budget calculation factors used by the state and the addition of a mandatory pre-kindergarten program, the district could face a significant loss of revenue.

Fusco said that when the governor’s proposed aid for Niagara Wheatfield in 2014-15 is compared with what the State Legislature approved for the current year, aid went down about 0.45 percent. Cuomo has proposed to give the district $23,077,839 in aid for next year while it received $23,181,465 from the Legislature for 2013-14.

Sabo estimated that when all factors are taken into account, the district could be facing an overall reduction of “16 percent less income.”

Although he is not against a mandatory pre-k program, Sabo noted that the funding arrangement would leave local districts responsible for the initial costs. Eventually, Cuomo’s plan is to fund the program with state-run casino revenues. However, Sabo pointed out that districts would have to fund the start-up of the program.

Pre-k, along with the plan to give bonuses to high-achieving teachers, would increase spending by 3.8 percent, he said.

“But no 3.8 percent increase [in aid] for us,” Sabo pointed out.

Recently, Niagara Wheatfield was cited by the state comptroller’s office as one of three districts in Niagara County to be in significant financial stress.

The superintendent explained that State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli’s office evaluated all 636 districts in the state and 87 were found to be in some fiscal stress with 12 in significant stress. In contrast, an outside audit conducted in October showed that Niagara Wheatfield closed its budget gap and had a surplus to purchase buses this year, she noted.

Still, Fusco was cautious to the board.

“We have a long way to go before we are fiscally healthy,” she said.

She and Sabo urged board members and the public to continue to lobby with state representatives for more aid for the district

In another matter, the board was updated on an elementary school counseling grant the district won from the U.S. Department of Education.

Niagara Wheatfield, which is one of 60 winners in the country, is slated to receive more than $1 million over the next three years to fund an enhanced counseling program measured by various goals such as identifying the need for increased mental health referrals at the elementary level. About 431 referrals were made in the first year of the program, it was noted.

With a portion of the funding, the district has been able to hire three more counselors for the elementary schools.