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Superintendents weigh in on state aid numbers


MASSENA - With a $3.2 million - originally $5.6 million - gap in their 2013-14 budget staring them in the face, Massena Central School District officials say state aid numbers released this week will help - by not by much.

“Although we’re pleased with any increase in school aid, the increases aren’t enough to significantly change our budget picture,” Superintendent Roger B. Clough II said.

“The difference between the governor’s proposed budget and the Legislature’s budget is an additional $68,420. That’s represents about 1.25 percent of our $5.5 million budget gap,” he said.

According to figures released this week, state aid for Massena is expected to increase 4.6 percent, or $1.2 million over 2012-13. Figures indicate the district received $25,737,834 in 2012-13 and that is projected to increase to $26,921,491 in 2013-14.

But, Mr. Clough said, it’s not enough to stave off cuts.

“Like all north country school districts, we still have no choice but to look for places we can cut,” he said.

The district’s Finance Committee has already whittled the gap from $5.6 million to $3.2 million and continues to look at a series of cuts, which have not yet been discussed publicly.

Those include looking at mandatory versus non-mandatory positions and programs; maintaining programs; maintaining acceptable class sizes; the impact of cuts on students, the district and the community; the cost of the program and cost per student; maximizing shared services; and eliminating open positions where possible.

The Finance Committee’s latest projection, which they presented during the March board of education meeting, showed an estimated 2013-14 budget of $48.7 million, up from $46 million this year largely due to increases in salaries, retirement contributions, health insurance and costs for programs and services provided by the Board of Cooperative Educational Services.

The options for closing the gap included spending district reserves, raising taxes or cutting expenses, and Finance Committee Michael J. LeBire said during the board meeting that they were using all three choices.

“The Finance Committee is still wrestling with budget. They are taking the input they’ve received from the community budget forum and staff to come up with a balance of cuts and use of fund balance,” Mr. Clough said.

Potsdam Central School Superintendent H. Brady said he appreciates the additional funding, which he views as a sign that Albany is finally starting to take notice of the issues schools in Northern New York are facing. For his district, the new aid runs give them approximately $397,000 more than the governor’s original proposal, bumping their overall aid increase to $424,080.

“This additional aid will be helpful in restoring some of the staff and programs we had targeted for cuts in 2013-2014 and I appreciate the work of our Legislature in helping to obtain this needed support,” he said.

Mr. Brady said the reductions in gap elimination adjustments, show that at least some people at the state level have realized that inequities exist with the formulas they use to calculate school funding.

“The fact that most of the aid increases were produced by lowering the gap elimination adjustment rather than the increasing the inequitable foundation aid formula indicates an awareness of the issues which are causing schools to struggle,” he said. “It also signals that the work of parent groups and other school advocates are beginning to be heard.”

While Mr. Brady said the increases are a step in the right direction, he also said that work remains to be done.

“We have lost millions of dollars over these past four years and until the state is willing to abolish the entire GEA schools like Potsdam will continue to face being on the brink of insolvency,” he said. “We need mandate relief and other long-term solutions which will help us to save staffing and programs so we can provide the same high-quality opportunities as can be found in any other region of the state.”

In Brasher Falls, St. Lawrence Central School Superintendent Stephen M. Putman said he was hoping for better numbers when the state aid projections were released.

“I was hoping for a larger increase, to be honest,” he said. “The difference for us between the governor’s proposal and this is $56,980.”

The state aid projections released this week showed an increase of 6.07 percent, or $787,986 over 2012-13 for the school district. The figures indicated that the district had received $12,974,908 in 2012-13 and was projected to receive $13,762,894 in 2013-14.

Some of the increase, Mr. Putman said, is because of an update to student numbers that affects how much the district receives for items such as textbooks and hardware aid.

Compared to the governor’s proposal, the projected final numbers show an increase of $56,980, short of what Mr. Putman said he was hoping to see.

“I was hoping for something like $100,000,” he said.

The district currently has a shortfall of approximately $650,000, he said, and they’ll use the extra aid, plus other avenues to help close that gap.

“There are ways we may be able to impact that,” he said.

Mr. Putman said he continues to be concerned about how districts are being short-changed because of the gap elimination adjustment that state officials imposed on schools as a way to balance the state’s budget.

“What bothers me is the gap elimination adjustment now goes back four years. The gap elimination was originally to help the state balance their budget,” he said.

As schools continue to suffer, Mr. Putman said, the state budget has grown over the years from $115 billion to $135 billion, “yet they haven’t been able to eliminate gap elimination even though one of their most constitutional obligations is to educate children.”

The state’s budget has grown by $20 billion, he said, while districts are now receiving less state aid than they did in 2008-09.

“I don’t know how they can justify that. They talk about an increase to education and don’t ever acknowledge that we’ve been dealing with these reductions these past few years,” Mr. Putman said. “I just am troubled by the fact that we get these press releases about what a great budget this is for putting students first with no acknowledgement about what’s gone on the last four or five years. Aid to education has not grown at the same rate as their budget has grown.”

Norwood-Norfolk Central School Business Manager Lisa M. Mitras said the projections received this week were just about on par with what the district expected.

“It was roughly what I was thinking we would receive based on what I was hearing in the news. It was about what my estimates were,” Ms. Mitras said.

This week’s state aid projections indicate the district would receive an increase of 3.98 percent, or $505,928 over 2012-13. They had received $12,709,338 in 2012-13, according to the figures, and are projected to receive $13,215,266 in 2013-14.

That will help them pare down a $303,300 gap they had been looking at, although Ms. Mitras had come up with a plan to close that which included staff reductions, an increase in the use of the appropriated fund balance, a tax levy increase above 2 percent, an increase in the reserve contribution, amortization of their employee retiree system contributions and applying funding from their debt service reserve.

“We’ll have a work session on April 16 to finalize the budget. Then the board should be set to approve it at their April 22 meeting,” Ms. Mitras said.

Colton-Pierrepont Superintendent Joseph A. Kardash said the increase in aid his district receives was enough to bridge its budget gap and even reduce the tax levy increase it was planning to propose.

“As of our last budget update, if Colton-Pierrepont levied taxes at the calculated cap of 4.1 percent, we still had an $85,000 gap to fill,” he said. “The latest aid run added approximately $95,000 to the projections.”

With the additional aid giving them more than enough needed to close their budget gap, Mr. Kardash said the additional money will be used to reduce its tax levy increase from 4.1 percent to 3.98 percent, giving them a tax levy of $7,060,000 to support its $9,840,000 budget proposal.

Parishville-Hopkinton Superintendent Darin P. Saiff said his district is seeing an overall increase in aid from the new proposal of approximately $54,000. He said according to the new proposal his district’s foundation aid will increase $11,195, while its gap elimination adjustment was decreased by $47,979. He also noted that its categorical aid was decreased by approximately $5,000.

“Although we are seeing a positive trend in state aid, we are still lagging far behind other areas of the state in what we can offer our students,” he said. “The increases in aid will not come soon enough for some of our neighboring school districts and there is still cause for concern with regard to the solvency and equity of education for our north country students.”

Mr. Saiff also noted that while the increases in aid are a good thing, the aid received so far isn’t nearly enough to help offset the years of cuts.

“We will not be able to add back any of the cuts to programs or personnel that we have made over the last few years,” he said.

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