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September state aid payments delay cause for worry for school districts

TIMES STAFF WRITER
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School districts haven't received their September state aid payments, and the delay sets a tone of financial uncertainty for the 2010-11 school year that has local school officials wondering if they'll be able to make ends meet.


"The biggest problem is we don't know, we've gotten very little information lately," said Jack J. Boak, superintendent of the Jefferson-Lewis Board of Cooperative Educational Services. "We heard early on that the September state aid payment would be delayed and that puts everyone in a pinch."


The September payment coincides with the beginning of the school year. The main aid payment is often used by districts in September to pay into the New York state teacher retirement system, and many school districts end up breaking even after that.


The lottery aid that districts receive at the beginning of September, a separate payment from the main aid, is the only real cash flow school districts expect from the state, said Barbara O. Greene, BOCES finance director.


Both the main and lottery state aid payments have been delayed and are now due to districts by Sept. 30 instead of Sept. 1, Ms. Greene said.


Questions remain because the state comptroller has the power to withhold state aid, but local officials don't know when or how much of those funds they might not see.


"Money may be withheld now or later," Ms. Greene said. "But there could be uncertainty all along this year."


The school year is off to a start similar to last year, when state aid payments to school districts were delayed twice. Last year, Gov. David A. Paterson proposed mid-year cuts.


BOCES officials were told that the state aid payment they receive for providing services to local school districts would be delayed, but the payment actually came through a few days later, Ms. Greene said. BOCES received that money and passed it along to school districts.


In Carthage, the payment delay was a source of concern, but because taxes are coming in, the district is in pretty good shape at this point, Business Manager Amy M. Marrocco said at a Board of Education meeting Monday.


"I was concerned that if we didn't get the state aid on time and if taxes weren't coming in that we wouldn't be able to make our October payroll," Ms. Marrocco said. "But taxes are coming in well, so we're in pretty good shape right now."


School taxes have been coming in and providing income for districts this month, but it's unclear what course the rest of the school year will take. And a lot of uncertainty still surrounds the federal Education Jobs Bill, meant to save teaching jobs. The state Legislature must act in order for those funds to be distributed. The competitive Race to the Top grant funding that New York recently received also can't be distributed until some state-level decisions are made.


A mid-year aid cut is at the back of educators' minds too. Mr. Paterson's proposal last year didn't get through the Legislature. The last time a cut actually happened when districts had their budgets in place was the 1980's, Ms. Greene said.


"It has happened in the past and that's why the school business officials who have been around have some fear about it," Ms. Greene said. "These are such uncertain times."

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