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Could this be the next 2 percent cap for school districts?

How do you control school spending?

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's solution is to limit reimbursements to school districts for money they spent on certain programs the previous year, a prospect he says could save state taxpayers millions.

School district officials and some lawmakers see something else: another move by the governor to pass more education costs to property taxpayers at the local level.

The governor's latest proposal would place a 2 percent cap on expense-driven aid, state funds used for busing, construction and BOCES programs from special education to back office.

Under his plan, districts in Erie and Niagara counties could lose more than $9.7 million in building aid for construction that would have already taken place, according to one statewide organization.

Districts also wonder if it will come down to making more students walk if gas prices spike, and one BOCES superintendent questions the wisdom of limiting students' access to career and technical programs that will help them get jobs in the new economy.

That's why some administrators and business officials are hoping this proposal dies quietly in the budget process.

"I understand why the school districts don’t like it. I'm opposed to it as well," said state Sen. Patrick M. Gallivan, vice-chairman of the Senate's Education Committee. "The way we fund education clearly needs work."

The goal of the initiative is to "encourage school districts to control spending" and free up state resources for general state aid that is distributed to schools to spend how they want. If approved, the measure would go into effect for the 2019-20 school year.

But there's no language proposed that guarantees the savings would go to schools, according to the New York State School Boards Association. And even if the guarantee were there, it would not mean an increase in aid, but a redistribution, according to the association.

What concerns districts is they may have to shift more costs to local taxpayers for projects. A district in the midst of a project that could be expecting certain amount of state aid could see that aid reduced. But it still has to pay its bills. As a result, the district's taxpayers could be forced to pay more through higher property taxes. If the proposed statewide cap on reimbursement for capital expenses is enacted, "then no school district would be able to predict its aid amount," said Richard Timbs, executive director of the Statewide School Financial Consortium.

"It will be a disaster for school districts and the construction industry," Timbs said.

The state Association of School Business Officials ran reimbursement rates using the new formula, and calculated that districts in Erie County would lose $8.05 million in building aid in the first year, while Niagara County districts would lose $1.68 million.

Buffalo would stand to lose almost $4.6 million if the proposal goes through, far and away the most of any local district. The next big aid-losers would be:

  • Niagara Falls, $447,348
  • Williamsville, $344,815
  • Kenmore-Tonawanda, $326,059
  • North Tonawanda, $298,531
  • Lockport, $234,116
  • Starpoint, $231,511
  • Lancaster, $222,061
  • Clarence, $200,165
  • Niagara Wheatfield, $159,453

"This is part of a troubling trend in a cost shift from the state to local school districts that has been going on for at least a decade," said Michael Borges, executive director of the business officials association.

Ten years ago, local school districts funded about 51 percent of the cost of education. Today, local schools fund about 55 percent of their costs, Borges said.

The idea of shifting costs is not only a statewide issue; President Trump's $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan would use $200 billion in federal funding to spur local, state and private investment to come up with the rest of the money.

Business officials see a few more things wrong with Cuomo's school aid proposal. West Seneca Treasurer Brian L. Schulz said it sets up a "horrific scenario" where districts will be afraid to save money because it will reduce their aid in the future.

"If they have a one-time saving, why take it?" he said.

West Seneca is planning a long-term, $60 million to $75 million capital project that will make improvements to every building in the district. The plan is to take on the new debt as old bonds are paid off, which would keep the tax rate stable, he said. If the governor's cap is adopted, he think the project is still doable but may take longer to finish.

"I think it's really going to push the districts to a lot more long-term capital planning to ensure they get the work done," Schulz said.

Colin Belinger, 17, of Grand Island High School works on electrical outlets in the Electrical Systems course at Erie 1 BOCES Harkness Career & Center on Friday, Feb. 16, 2018. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Building, transportation and BOCES aid reimbursements have a bigger effect in high need rural districts, which depend on them for 20 percent of their budget, according to the state school boards association.

To save money on transportation, districts with sidewalks might be able to have more children walk to school, but that's not a safe option in far-flung rural districts with country roads and few sidewalks. If the cost of diesel and gasoline spike, will districts contemplate busing fewer students to save money?

"It could potentially have a dangerous effect on decisions made on transportation," Schulz said.

"We're hoping that opposition will doom these efforts to continue the cost shift," Borges said.

And with the governor's emphasis on sharing costs and services, BOCES, Boards of Cooperative Educational Services, have been the go-to place for schools to acquire everything from payroll and IT support to special ed and career and technical programs. Erie 1 BOCES Superintendent Lynn Fusco called career and tech programs the economic drivers for the region.

"To put a cap on BOCES aid may have the unintended consequence of putting a cap on the ability of students to participate in those programs," she said.

She called the 2 percent cap on expense-driven aid with the tax levy cap a "double whammy."

"BOCES has been very instrumental in helping districts manage the challenges they've been facing both with tax levy cap issues and foundation aid," Fusco said.

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