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School leaders still feel pain of state budget gap 4 years ago

They’re three words that can make eyes glaze over: gap elimination adjustment.

But school leaders say the state aid funding change put in place four years ago to address a state budget gap has shortchanged schools across the state by billions of dollars.

“It sounds like a really nice term, but it’s not our gap that they’re trying to eliminate,” said Jeffrey R. Rabey, superintendent of Depew Union Free School District. “It’s their gap that they’re trying to eliminate, and they’re using the schools to do it.”

In an unusual move, local superintendents and school board members plan to rally Thursday night at Kenmore East High School to draw attention to what they describe as deep cuts to basic state aid used to run schools during the last four years.

In Lake Shore, for example, school administrators have closed two elementary schools and eliminated 57 full-time jobs to make up for $17.9 million in lost state aid due to the adjustment.

In Depew, which has lost $10.6 million over four years, the school district is facing the possibility of cutting 15 to 20 more positions next year and maximizing class sizes.

And in Kenmore-Tonawanda, where the district calculates it has lost $33.2 million because of the state aid adjustment, school officials have blamed the lost state aid for a $7 million gap they are working to close in next school year’s budget.

While Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has proposed increasing state funding for education next year, it would not be enough to undo the cuts made under Gov. David A. Paterson. That disappointed many school superintendents when he unveiled his budget.

Cuomo, however, said those demanding to roll back the gap elimination adjustment are “saying, in essence, ‘I want to go back to my high point five years ago.’ ”

“Everybody in the world wants to go back to the high point before the recession,” Cuomo said during a meeting this week with reporters and editors at The Buffalo News. “I want my house to go back to the high point. I want my bank account to go back to the high point.”

Cuomo said state aid for education was increasing at unsustainable rates before the state put the gap elimination adjustment in place. The governor, in discussing state education aid, repeatedly points to the state’s high per-pupil spending.

“You can’t spend more money than you make,” the governor said. “You can’t. It catches up to you sooner or later.”

The rally – spearheaded by the Erie County Association of School Boards and other local education groups – is aimed at persuading lawmakers to roll back cuts to education funding.

“It’s been a disaster for school districts,” said Rick Timbs, executive director of the Statewide School Finance Consortium. “The gap elimination adjustment is the transfer of the obligation to fund schools from the state’s constitutional obligation to school districts and their local taxpayers.”

While overall state aid to education would increase under Cuomo’s budget proposal, many school districts in Western New York would receive less basic school aid – excluding money tied to specific construction projects – than they did before the gap adjustment was put in place.

Administrators in Lake Shore, for example, calculate that the district has received $17.9 million less between 2010-11 and 2013-14 than it would have if the state had not adjusted school funding.

“When Gov. Paterson, during his budget crisis, proposed this gap elimination to affect state aid to schools, it was my impression that it was going to be a one-year fix, or a one-year financial issue,” said Lake Shore Superintendent James Przepasniak. “Now, five years later, we are still talking about this gap elimination.”

Coupled with a new tax cap and rising school expenses, the reductions to state school aid have driven layoffs and classroom cuts across the region, Przepasniak and other superintendents said.

Przepasniak said school districts can’t wait for the state to slowly bring schools back up to 2008-09 funding levels. The Lake Shore School Board and at least 10 others have passed resolutions calling for the state to immediately end the gap elimination adjustment.

To fully restore schools to aid levels they received before the gap adjustment was put into place, the state would have to spend $1.6 billion, Timbs said. The governor, instead, proposed restoring $323 million next year.

Cuomo said his strategy has been to align state aid increases for schools to the growth of personal income levels in the state. Eventually, he said, all school districts will rebound to the levels they received before the cuts were put in place.

“They want more money, I know, but there is no more money,” Cuomo said. “And you can’t say, ‘I expect my revenue stream to grow at double or triple the rate that the income in the state is growing.’ ”

Timbs, a former district superintendent for Erie 2-Chautauqua-Cattaraugus BOCES, contends that since the state has eliminated its budget gap, it ought to eliminate the school aid adjustment that was meant to help close that gap.

“It’s making it so the school districts are really hard-pressed to accomplish their mission,” Timbs said.

Many school districts were able to absorb the state aid cuts with the help of federal stimulus money. Since then, Cuomo has increased state aid to schools, but it hasn’t been enough in many districts to make up for the previous cuts.

“When these reductions first started happening, we went through our budget line by line and really tried to use a scalpel rather than a chain saw to make those reductions,” Rabey said. “But we really are starting to run out of options.”

The meeting at 7 p.m. Thursday in Kenmore East High School is the first time school officials, teachers and other educators plan to come together at a public rally to draw attention to the lost state aid.

In addition to the Erie County Association of School Boards, the rally is being organized by the Western New York Educational Service Council, the Western Region PTA, Erie-Niagara School Superintendents Association and Campus Construction Management.

“We really are trying to get the word out that we can’t continue under these financial restraints any longer,” Przepasniak said. “The governor and the Legislature have to appropriately fund education.”

News Staff Reporter Sandra Tan contributed to this report. email: