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$1 billion hike in state aid to schools not enough, suburban Buffalo districts say

The West Seneca Central School District has reduced its staff by 270 over five years. The Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda School District closed three schools to start this school year.

Officials at the two suburban districts in Erie County that receive the most state aid say they're doing their part to trim costs, hold the line on taxes and preserve programming for students.

But the state isn't holding up its end of the bargain, they say.

The $1 billion hike in school aid Gov. Andrew Cuomo is proposing for New York State’s school districts in his state budget isn’t as generous as it sounds, said Brian L. Schulz, treasurer for the West Seneca district.

"We made the necessary changes," he said. "We're on a balanced budget approach. But we sure as heck would like to have more state aid to meet that budgetary gap we see starting to develop."

First, that $1 billion increase is required by state law – based on the increase in personal income tax in the state, state education advocates say.

“That amount went up 3.9 percent,” said Richard Timbs, executive director of the Statewide School Finance Consortium. “So that was already included by statute.”

But that increase in aid drops to an average hike of 1.7 percent across the 28 districts of Erie County, including 1.5 percent in West Seneca and Ken-Ton.

"We're hoping to recognize additional consolidation savings, which should help us with the small increase in foundation aid of 1.5 percent," said John Brucato, Ken-Ton's assistant superintendent for finance. "But that's still being calculated."

Of course, this is just the start of the state budget process in Albany. State legislators often increase state aid for schools when they pass the budget.

Of the $1 billion increase proposed by Cuomo, $100 million is tied to specific programs, such as community schools and the expansion of pre-kindergarten.

“They are worthwhile,” Robert N. Lowry with the New York State Council of School Superintendents said. “But that money comes with strings attached and don’t help schools pay the bills.”

And on top of that, the so-called “2 percent tax cap” on school districts and local governments is set at 1.26 percent for the next fiscal year.

“That’s the fourth year in a row the basic tax cap is below 2 percent,” Lowry said. That greatly restricts a district’s ability to raise taxes for their schools.

“We estimate that between the aid districts can see on the aid runs now and the low tax cap, on average, districts would have about half the revenue they would need to cover basic cost increases, Lowry said.

That's the case in West Seneca, where Schulz said the proposed $491,437 increase in state aid and $600,000 increase in the tax levy allowed under the cap wouldn't close a projected budget gap of between $1.5 and $2 million.

West Seneca restructured district expenditures and reduced dependence on its fund balance, but remains  dependent on state aid, he said.

The state would have to provide $1.5 billion in order for schools to maintain what they currently offer, according to Lowery. “The governor’s proposal falls well short of that.”

While school superintendents and education advocates are thrilled that the days of budget cuts and teacher layoffs are largely over, they say they still don’t have the money they should be getting.

It’s not supposed to be this way, both Lowry and Timbs point out.

In 2007, the state agreed to a funding formula for aid to schools which factored in a base amount of aid per pupil, regional costs, measures of students needs such as poverty and whether they are English language learners. “It was a more understandable, predictable aid formula,” Lowry said.

But then when the recession hit, the state enacted the gap elimination adjustment, through which the state took back funding it was supposed to pay to districts to help balance the state’s budget. Funding levels for schools actually went down.

West Seneca's total projected state aid of $46.4 million is still less than the $46.77 million it received in 2009-10. "That's probably the most disconcerting piece for us," Schulz said.

Aid to schools should increase by $4.3 billion to make up for all the money school districts have lost out on, Timbs said. So the increase proposed by Cuomo, he said, “is anemic at best."


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