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Disparity in school aid among school districts stirs mixed reaction among officials

Members of local school boards for weeks have been clamoring for state lawmakers to stop taking money from school districts to balance the state’s books.

The state budget passed by the State Legislature late Monday returned some of that money, but it did not get rid of the much-despised take-back of school aid.

Instead, lawmakers devised a 10-tier formula that sprinkled money across school districts based on a variety of factors – everything from whether a district has a high poverty rate to whether more than a quarter of its students go to private or charter schools.

The result is that some districts in Erie and Niagara counties made out better than others under a budget deal cut by state lawmakers over the weekend to increase school aid. Buffalo, for example, will get back more than two-thirds of the money that the state had planned to withhold. Many suburban districts in the Buffalo area, meanwhile, will see between 14 and 22 percent of the money returned.

“A fair-minded person might say this is really helping some districts that have real financial challenges,” said Robert N. Lowry Jr., deputy director of the State Council of School Superintendents. “But a lot of this stuff is very convoluted, and it’s far from transparent.”

The result is a state budget that left school superintendents mildly pleased by state aid increases, but still deeply concerned about the future of their districts as they balance increasing expenses with a property tax cap that limits the amount of money they can raise.

“Certainly, we were pleasantly surprised by the outcome because everything we were hearing was there would be little additional aid compared to the governor’s budget,” said Williamsville Superintendent Scott G. Martzloff. “Our concern now is in regard to the fiscal future.”

Williamsville, according to the state’s budget projections, was among the winners. The district is slated to receive 8.12 percent more state aid compared with the current school year, not including reimbursements the district gets for construction projects. Lancaster is in line to receive 9.86 percent more in the 2014-15 fiscal year, and Alden will get 9.35 percent more.

On the other end of the spectrum is Lewiston-Porter. The Niagara County school district is among the region’s wealthiest, but has been labeled by the state comptroller as “fiscally stressed” because of its low reserves. It will receive less than 1 percent more state aid than the current school year under the state budget.

There is no quick explanation for why some districts get more than others. The state formulas used to divvy money among the state’s roughly 700 districts are made up of a variety of types of aid – including the basic school aid used to run schools, plus reimbursements for expenses such as sending students with disabilities to out-of-district programs or buying new buses.

Enrollment, which has dropped in most local school districts, also plays a role in how the money is distributed.

The budget deal increased school aid compared with the current year in all districts in Erie and Niagara counties, but whether it will be enough to alleviate budget gaps in some districts will play out during the next few weeks as school boards finalize the budget proposals they will take to voters in May.

“The enacted budget will probably alter some plans in some of the districts that were facing severe cuts,” said Donald A. Ogilvie, district superintendent for Erie 1 Board of Cooperative Educational Services. “But that is still to be determined on a district-by-district basis.”

It is not expected that school districts will ask voters to approve budgets that would exceed a state property tax cap, which requires approval of more than 60 percent of voters. In the last two years, few districts that have tried that approach succeeded, and a proposal by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to provide a rebate to taxpayers in districts that stay within the tax cap made it even more of a wild card this year.

“I am not aware of any district, even before the compromise budget, that was going to attempt the super-majority approach,” Olgivie said. “It was too unpredictable.”

The rallying call from school leaders in the weeks since Cuomo first proposed his budget in January was for lawmakers to roll back a 4-year-old formula known as the “gap elimination adjustment,” or GEA. The formula, first enacted in the 2009-10 school year, has reduced state aid to school districts in an effort to close the state budget gaps. State lawmakers did attempt to restore a portion of that money in the new budget but made the restorations across school districts differently.

That left some administrators Monday combing through state aid documents for clues for how lawmakers made the choices they did.

In Lewiston-Porter, for example, school officials knew that some reductions were coming in areas where state aid depends on the amount of money the district spends. The district, which laid off 45 people last year, has cut back on services as it sought to close budget gaps. Because of that, some expense-driven state aid – such as money it gets for BOCES services – has dropped, said Superintendent R. Christopher Roser.

But Roser said he had no clear explanation from the state as to why Lewiston-Porter would receive a far smaller restoration of the money it lost through the gap elimination adjustment than last year.

“Any additional aid is good news,” Roser said. “It’s just, why we got so much more last year and so much less this year, especially in GEA restoration, is absolutely a mystery to me. It just doesn’t make sense.”

Olgivie, of Erie 1 BOCES, said superintendents expect to continue to face similar budget concerns as long as the gap elimination adjustment is in place.

“Credit is due to the Legislature,” Oglivie said. “They supported the people that elected them who happened to also be residents of school districts, but there are a couple of issues that will keep recurring until a strategic solution is agreed upon to make state aid funding to schools equitable.”