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State aid to schools grows, but some administrators call it 'status quo'

State aid for New York’s schools will increase by more than $1 billion, which is more than Gov. Andrew Cuomo originally proposed.

That’s the good news for districts.

The bad news is that not every school district will see an increase, and for those that do, it may not be nearly as much as they had hoped to catch up from years of past cuts. One superintendent referred to it as “status quo.”

“We’re grateful we have more money than what was in the governor’s proposal. That’s certainly a big plus,” said Richard Timbs, executive director of Statewide School Financial Consortium. “At the same time, is it enough? And is it being sent to the right places?”

School officials across the state woke Saturday to find that lawmakers in Albany had reached a budget deal, but were still trying get their arms around exactly what it meant for their individual districts.

“Some districts may be experiencing more joy than others this morning,” said Julie Marlette, director of governmental relations for the New York State School Boards Association.

Here’s the upshot:

• Aid to schools across the state will rise by $1.1 billion, or 4.4 percent, to $25.8 billion. The main “foundation aid” funding formula, also known as operating aid, will go up $700 million.

• In Erie and Niagara counties, state aid will go up a total of $55.2 million, or 3.9 percent, to $1.45 billion. That’s an increase of roughly $43 million for schools in Erie County and about $12 million in Niagara County.

• Of the 38 school districts in the two counties, 35 will receive an increase in aid, not counting building aid. About half of those districts – 17 – will receive increases of at least 4 percent.

• Those increases range from a high of 12.48 percent in Holland to less than 1 percent in Grand Island, Amherst, Williamsville, Hamburg and Alden.

• Among the region’s largest districts, Buffalo is getting a 4.4 percent increase in aid; Williamsville, .56 percent; Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda, 2.44 percent; West Seneca, 2.98 percent; and Niagara Falls, 6.1 percent.

At Frontier, the district will see state aid rise about 3.5 percent next year, which is about what the district had conservatively projected when preparing its budget, said Frontier Superintendent Bret Apthorpe.

The problem is the district has not been able to catch up from years of state cuts in the form of the Gap Elimination Adjustment, which was taken away last year, Apthorpe said.

“Three and a half percent sounds good, but our budgets have been reduced way more than that over the past 10 years – so have a lot of other districts,” said Apthorpe.

Apthorpe called the state aid for Frontier “very disappointing” and based on interaction Saturday with his peers from other districts, they feel the same way.

“It sends a message that our status quo is intended by our policy makers to be the new norm and that just not fair for Western New York kids,” Apthorpe said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there were going to be some surprises coming out of it in the next couple of days, because so often it’s buried deep in the numbers.”

State funding will decrease for three area school districts: Maryvale, Cleveland Hill and the City of Tonawanda, where state funding will go down more than 4 percent.

“I did not expect that,” Maryvale Superintendent Joseph R. D’Angelo said. “The fact that some districts are getting less, that should never happen.”

“We’re going to either have to make significant cuts to the program or we’re going to have to propose a budget that will help us make up the gap,” D’Angelo said, “and hopefully the community will see the value in it.”

There was some relief, however, that the state budget does take into account – at least in most cases – growing demands on school districts in cities both big and small, as well as those in impoverished rural areas, said Timbs.

“We see a recognition that their mission has increased dramatically, because they have so many new English language learners,” Timbs said. “I think there’s a recognition to help there.”

School district officials in Buffalo, where aid will go up 4.4 percent, were not prepared to comment on the budget figures Saturday until they get a better grasp of how it will impact the district.

For example, districts including Buffalo were still trying to figure out the level of aid they would be providing to charter schools.

At the very least, Timbs and Marlette said, the state’s 700 or so school districts will now be able to better plan their own budgets in the face of a deadline for local districts later this month to approve fiscal plans for the coming school year.

“The question for many of them is do we have to use more fund balance? Do we have to lay off staff?” Timbs said. “Now, they’re in better position to analyze their situation and make that determination.”

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