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Falls school board not waiting for state aid projection to start budget process

NIAGARA FALLS – The city school district won’t let Albany hold up its budgeting process for the upcoming school year.

The state, which typically provides almost 75 percent of the annual funding for Niagara Falls’ public schools, has withheld projections for school aid statewide amid Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s call for education reforms. Usually by this time, local school districts already have received preliminary aid figures from the state.

Late last month, the district’s finance officials went ahead and gave the School Board an outline of projected revenues for the upcoming budget year.

While Cuomo said education funding would rise by either 1.7 or 4.8 percent statewide, depending on whether certain reforms are enacted, Niagara Falls officials are preliminarily projecting a 6.3 percent increase in state aid.

“This was just presented as a potential, as an estimate, as a possibility,” said Joe Giarrizzo, the district’s administrator for school business services. “There’s no basis in fact, other than just an estimate based on history.”

Giarrizzo said he and his staff looked at the amounts of aid the district has received in the past and put the numbers together to give the School Board “a sense of what is possible.”

District officials have a few months to work on the spending plan before it comes before voters in May.

But exactly when the governor and the State Legislature come to an agreement and finalize state aid numbers is the wild card.

“It looks like we won’t know for sure for quite a while,” Giarrizzo said.

School Superintendent Cynthia A. Bianco is scheduled to present her recommended budget to the board on March 19. A tentative timeline for budget development prepared by the district has the School Board voting to adopt a budget and a contingency budget on March 26.

The school district, whose annual budget is larger than the city’s, received $93 million in state aid this school year. Officials have projected a $5.8 million jump for the 2015-16 school year, for a total of roughly $98.9 million in state aid.

These early projections by the district estimate a 1.1 percent increase next year in foundation aid, the least restricted type of state aid, up from $71.3 million this year.

The district also has projected a 7.1 percent increase in building aid, but that will be offset by an increase in the district’s debt payments, according to the district.

In the weeks ahead, district officials will present the board with spending projections, identify gaps between revenue and spending and then propose ways to plug the gap.

The primary ways to cover any budget gap, Giarrizzo said, would be to decrease staff, make cuts to programs, levy a tax increase or dip into the district’s savings. At this point, the district has about $2.1 million in unrestricted savings.

Last year, after an initial proposal that would have seen between 14 and 33 job cuts, the board adopted a budget with no increase to the tax levy. Voters approved the $126.4 million spending plan.

“It’s difficult when we’re making these estimates, so the more that we know, the more precise we can be,” Giarrizzo said, “and, in the long run, the more fair we can be to all constituents.”