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New state budget increases aid for all area schools

Area school administrators breathed a collective sigh of relief Tuesday when they learned local districts will receive at least some increase in state aid for the next school year.

“In our case we were planning on no increase in aid using current law,” said Ted Welch, business administrator of the Springville-Griffith Institute Central School District. “This allows us at least to help stop the bleeding a little bit.”

Still, they’re nervously eyeing Albany, waiting for more details on budget bills that were put together without an airing of the specifics.

“The devil is always in the details and unfortunately all of us are going to have our budgets approved before we’re going to know many of those details,” Welch said.

Compared to last year’s aid package, it’s good news, said Richard Timbs, executive director of the Statewide School Financial Consortium. But not the best news.

“Compared to what schools need to not only survive, but thrive, it missed the mark by about $500 million,” he said.

The $1.29 billion increase in school aid in the state budget works out to increases for every school district in Erie and Niagara counties, including 10 percent or more for 10 districts. But it is not known how much it will cost to enact education reforms included in the budget agreement.

Timbs said school districts are wondering how they will be affected by a new teacher evaluation system, and how much it will cost them to implement it.

“I see increased money, but I also see a drain on this system,” he said.

And while the agreement puts back some of the money lost in recent years to the “gap elimination adjustment,” state aid still isn’t up to the level it was before the financial crisis hit several years ago.

“It’s not the restoration we had hoped for but we’ll take anything at this point,” said Springville Superintendent Paul M. Connelly.

School superintendents and financial officers were going over state aid runs Tuesday, and many were reluctant to talk about it until they know more about the funding.

Generally the percentage increases for urban districts are lower than increases for suburban districts. It is early in the process to know what the aid numbers mean, said Buffalo’s interim Superintendent Donald Ogilvie. Buffalo’s aid would increase nearly 4 percent.

“It helps, but I’ll want to find out how much of this is expense-driven aid, how much of it ultimately goes into grants versus entitlement ... and is there flexibility on how we use the money,” he said.

“There’s a lot of analysis that needs to be done,” Hamburg Superintendent Michael Cornell said.

Hamburg would receive a 9.64 percent boost in aid, but he said district calculations put the number below that. The state also added funding to make up for the money deducted when the state was filling its budget gap, but the district still is short $830,000. And New York has a $5.5 billion surplus, he said.

“It’s just frustrating,” Cornell said. “We have a surplus that they are currently allocating to uses other than education, yet there’s still a gap elimination in place for our children.”

Lewiston-Porter Central School District is one of 10 districts in the state facing “significant fiscal stress,” according to the state Comptroller’s Office.

“The gap elimination was just debilitating when you add it to a 2 percent tax cap. There’s no way to make it up,” said Patricia Grupka, assistant superintendent for administrative services for Lewiston-Porter.

She said the district would be looking at eliminating more programs if it did not get the 6.84 percent increase in aid.

“Up to this time, we were budgeting for no increase at all,” Lew-Port Superintendent Chris Roser said.

In Springville, school officials are now anticipating an 8.16 percent increase in aid, from $15 million in 2014-15 to $16.2 million for 2015-16, not including building aid formula numbers.

“How that’s going to impact us really is going to be dependent upon what our Board of Education wants to do with those figures,” said Springville’s Connelly. “I want to throw everything I possibly can back into reserves.”

It was only three years ago that the district was forced to lay off 45 employees, he said. This year it is offering a resignation incentive.

“We made it to the brink,” Connelly said. “Hopefully we’re going to be able to pull back now, restore some of our reserves and move forward.”