Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo had a specific goal in mind with school aid this year: education equity.
And no one is arguing with that.
Eighty percent of his proposed $826 million increase in aid is for high-need school districts, he said. Included in that is a $704 million increase in foundation aid – money that drives school spending. The governor said 85% of that increase would target high-needs districts.
But finance officers and school business officials, who have been poring over details of the state aid proposal, are still trying to figure out what that means. That's because the calculations used to arrive at the aid figure for each district are different from previous years.
"Until we have details like that, it's difficult to understand the impact of what he's proposed," Hamburg Superintendent Michael Cornell said.
Every school district in Erie and Niagara counties would see an increase in state aid under Cuomo's proposal, some as much as 7%, and others less than 1%.
But until school finance officers can dissect the formula – which changed from last year and may change again after the state Legislature gets its hands on it – they won't know how much they might have to work with in crafting budgets for next year.
"They took millions of dollars of other aid and stuck it into foundation aid. This is going to be really hard to sort out," said Richard Timbs, executive director of the Statewide School Finance Consortium. "We’re going to have to be detectives."
Jeffrey Petrus, Orchard Park Central's assistant superintendent for business and support services, watched Cuomo's hourlong budget presentation Tuesday. He heard the governor's commitment that 80% of the 3% increase in school aid would be targeted to high-needs districts. Because of that, he said, "I wasn't anticipating any increase for Orchard Park," he said.
But Orchard Park would see a 2.22% increase, a number that does not include building aid from year to year because building aid varies by the amount of construction in each district. That would be good news, if the final budget includes that increase, he said.
The big change is the governor is lumping 10 expense-driven aid categories into the big foundation aid category. The amount of expense-driven aid depends on how much districts spend on the category, such as BOCES services.
"We buy services from BOCES, with the anticipation if we purchase another service we're going to get more aid to offset some of those costs the following year," Petrus said. "Does that mean there's not an advantage to us purchasing from BOCES anymore?"
The governor wants to rein in expense-driven aid, maintaining that spending on expenses such as construction and transportation has outpaced inflation in the past eight years. He would create a new tier of building aid for projects approved starting in the next school year. He also proposes capping transportation aid to the rate of inflation, or inflation plus enrollment growth.
Timbs said some districts are planning capital projects based on their reimbursement rate, and it would be difficult to plan and get voter approval for an ever-changing rate.
New York State Council of School Superintendents Executive Director Charles Dedrick said the proposal to lump the 10 aid categories into foundation aid is worrisome.
"District officials have some ability to forecast future aid levels for these formulas, but they cannot predict what foundation aid will be from one year to the next," Dedrick said in a written statement. "Proposals to cap transportation aid and revise building aid reimbursements raise similar concerns and threaten to impose new costs for districts to absorb within the property tax cap."
As veterans of the school aid dance in Albany note, it's only January, and there are more than two months of give and take between the state Legislature and the governor before the budget adoption deadline of April 1.
Below are the governor's proposals for school aid and the percentage change from this year's aid. Figures do not include building aid, which is reimbursed to districts and is different for each district.
Akron: $13,810,514, up 2.74%
Alden: $13,450,874, up 2.12%
Amherst: $13,481,573, up 1.18%
Buffalo: $684,756,395, up 2.57%
Cheektowaga: $16,033,103, up 3.11%
Clarence: $21,471,155, up 4.69%
Cleveland Hill: $12,875,506, up 2.70%
Depew: $18,052,857, up 4.95%
East Aurora: $8,006,737, up 0.39%
Eden: $10,955,661, up 1.83%
Frontier: $32,621,362 up 1.11%
Grand Island: $17,573,928, up 3.99%
Hamburg: $23,574,990, up 1.86%
Holland: $9,909,344, up 1.69%
Iroquois: $13,737,285, up 1.78%
Kenmore-Tonawanda: $53,392,269, up 1.12%
Lackawanna: $38,674,949, up 1.01%
Lake Shore: $28,688,743, up 0.58%
Lancaster: $33,741,315, up 3.13%
Maryvale: $17,079,560, up 2.31%
North Collins: $7,560,737, up 3.26%
Orchard Park: $24,970,163, up 2.22%
Sloan: $15,790,636, up 1.76%
Springville-Griffith: $18,248,149, up 0.66%
Sweet Home: $21,539,790, up 3.78%
Tonawanda: $17,853,794, up 0.68%
West Seneca: $46,128,044, up 1.97%
Williamsville: $37,932,319, up 5.01%
Barker: $7,898,472, up 7.20%
Lewiston-Porter: $14,371,513, up 1.64%
Lockport: $50,700,151, up 0.95%
Newfane $18,170,800, up 2.00%
Niagara Falls: $109,035,842, up 1.88%
Niagara Wheatfield: $31,408,069, up 1.75%
North Tonawanda: $37,557,825, up 0.96%
Royalton-Hartland: $14,338,386, up 1.21%
Starpoint: $18,305,290, up 1.16%
Wilson: $12,991,593, up 1.62%
Source: State Division of the Budget