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Educators disagree proposed budget gives highest school funding in state history

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Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s office boasts that the proposed budget unveiled Tuesday allocates the highest amount of funding for public schools in the state’s history. Local educators beg to differ, arguing that as long as the gap elimination adjustment remains in the budget, the education system is being taxed to supplement the state’s debts.

“There are problems with how the state is allocating money to schools,” said Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa. “The state has not kept its commitment to return unpaid funding to the schools, and to say they’re spending more now is not telling the whole story.”

Morris Peters, press officer with the state Division of the Budget, said that for the 2014-15 school year, the executive budget recommends a total of $21.88 billion for school aid — a year-to-year funding increase of $807 million, or 3.8 percent, across the board.

In addition, the executive budget will support initiatives to enhance education technology in schools, provide for full-day prekindergarten and reward teacher excellence. The 2014-15 executive budget also includes 2.92 percent in formula-based aid, including building aid. High-need districts will receive 70 percent of the formula-based aid increase.

Richard Azzopardi, a representative from the governor’s press office, said the budget represents years of work to get the state out of deficit.

“Education is the governor’s top priority,” Mr. Azzopardi said.

He said that while there are no plans to eliminate the gap elimination adjustment entirely as long as the state budget remains in a deficit, the governor has invested $918 million toward reducing it “and continues that trend with an additional $323 million in this year’s budget.”

“The $2 billion surplus is still two years from now,” Mr. Azzopardi said.

Richard G. Timbs, executive director of the Statewide School Finance Consortium, called the gap elimination adjustment a “reduction of a reduction” in state aid to schools. “The GEA is a tax on the schools,” he said.

In Jefferson County, a total of $130,250,387 is allocated for the districts, with a $9,914,011 gap elimination adjustment. With $2,692,052 in GEA restoration, the GEA is reduced to $7,221,959.

Mr. Timbs said the across-the-board increase in school funding is again giving wealthy school districts an advantage instead of providing more funding for high-need schools to level the playing field.

“It’s not a fair percentage; it’s not enough money to spread around,” Mr. Timbs said.

According to the state Education Department, the need/resource capacity index, a measure of a district’s ability to meet the needs of its students with local resources, is the ratio of the estimated poverty percentage — or percentage of children who qualify for free or reduced lunches combined with the percentage of students who live below the poverty threshold — compared with the combined wealth ratio, or the ratio of district wealth per student when compared with the state average. A district with both estimated poverty and combined wealth ratio equal to the state average would have a need/resource capacity index of 1.0.

Mrs. Russell said she and her legislative colleagues are “gearing up” for what she anticipates will be a make or break year for schools.

As the numbers are laid out on the table, promises for universal pre-K still leaves two Jefferson County schools with no program and no funding for its implementation.

Sackets Harbor Central School Superintendent Frederick E. Hall Jr. said he wasn’t surprised.

“There hasn’t been money designated for us to have pre-K for the past five years,” Mr. Hall said. “If we were to have pre-K at our school, we would need instructional staff and classrooms.”

Mr. Hall said for his district, it could cost roughly $500,000 to start the program, but he could anticipate going forward only if he thought the program were sustainable.

“You could have a really good pre-K and then have to send the kids home,” Mr. Timbs said. “Pre-K is a great idea, but what about K through 12?”

As for the grants for technology improvements, Mr. Timbs said, the money could be better spend giving it back to the districts.

“Should we be bonding money for 15 years for technology that could be dead in two years or should we give the districts money to use as they need it?” he said.

Looking at the projected state budget, Mr. Hall said he was disappointed to see the gap elimination adjustment still intact.

St. Lawrence-Lewis Board of Cooperative Education Services Superintendent Thomas R. Burns said that when he met with his district superintendents on Wednesday following Gov. Cuomo’s address, the “mood was pretty gloomy.”

“We were disappointed,” Mr. Burns said.

BOCES Director of Financial Affairs Nicole M. Ashley created a preliminary analysis based on the preliminary budget and estimated an increase from 0.03 to 5.52 percent for the St. Lawrence County districts.

“The gap elimination adjustment is taking away substantial increase any of the schools get,” Mr. Burns said. “One of our district superintendents said the amount increase in foundation won’t even begin to cover the increases in their health insurance rates.”

Mrs. Russell said state representatives need to get together and formulate proposals for changes to the executive budget.

“We need to find a way to get more money into our classrooms as opposed to designating them to competitive grants,” she said. “Over the years, the state has come up with creative ways to designate money into other classifications and, for the most part, wealthier schools are the ones who can afford grant writers to apply for them.”

Mrs. Russell said it will be the legislators’ job to push for additional funding before the budget is finalized in April.

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