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School districts left wondering how much aid they will get

Superintendents and business administrators usually need a few days to go over state aid proposals and figure out how their district made out under complicated formulas.

But they were left scratching their heads Wednesday and wondering how they’ll figure out their budgets for the next school year, when the state Division of Budget did not release state aid runs for every district in the state, as it has for years.

One Division of Budget official said it “doesn’t make sense” to release specific school district numbers because Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is proposing one overall number if the State Legislature goes along with his education reforms, and a much lower number if it does not.

During his State of the State address Wednesday, the governor said education funding would increase by 4.8 percent – or $1.1 billion – if what Cuomo called his “ambitious” agenda is passed. If it is not, the number would be a much lower $377 million – 1.7 percent.

Cuomo’s proposed reforms include some controversial items, such as changes in teacher evaluations and tenure.

The state School Boards Association said state aid “should not be held hostage” to reforms.

“Without knowing how much state funding they will receive, school boards will not be able to properly develop their budgets and estimate their tax levies,” the association’s Executive Director Timothy G. Kremer said in a statement.

“There was a lot of talk,”said Rick Timbs, executive director of the Statewide School Finance Consortium, said of Cuomo’s speech. “We don’t know what it means.”

And without the details, districts will have to estimate.

The tax cap, which will be based on a tax levy increase of 1.62 percent, effectively prevents districts from raising taxes over the cap, making districts “very dependent” on state money, said Orleans/Niagara BOCES Superintendent Clark Godshall.

Frontier School Superintendent Bret Apthorpe said districts need to know “today” how much state aid – their largest source of revenue – will be.

“It’s very romantic to say we’re going to have higher standards for kids, we’re going to have higher standards for teachers and we’re going to lower property taxes, and then oh by the way, here are all these unfunded state mandates you have to do by law,” Apthorpe said. “It’s quite frustrating.”

State Sen. Patrick M. Gallivan, R-Elma, and others said they were disappointed Cuomo did not specifically mention the gap elimination adjustment, a program that reduced aid to schools.

“When it comes to funding our public schools, we must make sure the distribution of resources is fair and equitable,” he said.

“Our schools have suffered enough and can no longer be forced to balance their budgets by cutting programs and services important to students,” Gallivan said.

Assemblywoman Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes, D-Buffalo, said the governor’s strategy of tying aid to the reforms makes sense.

“When folks are incentivized, there tends to be more of a reaction,” she said. “The most important thing we have to do – and I agree with the governor on this – we have to get every child educated and right now, that’s not happening.”

News Staff Reporter Mary B. Pasciak contributed to this report. email: bobrien@buffnews.com