When it comes to crafting their proposed 2014-15 school budgets, the math isnt adding up very well for St. Lawrence County school officials.
Joined by educators from throughout the state, area school superintendents and other advocates are pushing lawmakers to beef up the final state budget by allocating more funds for public education.
On Friday, school superintendents are scheduled to meet with state Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa, to discuss their concerns. The 10 a.m. meeting is at the St. Lawrence-Lewis Board of Cooperative Educational Services center, Canton.
The following week, district officials from Jefferson-Lewis BOCES plan to meet with Ms. Russell Feb. 27 in Watertown.
Ms. Russell said she is working to persuade her fellow state lawmakers to reduce the Gap Elimination Adjustment from $1.6 billion to $1 billion in the 2014 budget. She also advocates establishing a separate pool of money to help districts facing the most fiscal distress.
We need a separate pool of money to address these dire needs, Ms. Russell said. My northern districts need the GAP elimination to go away immediately. Beyond that, some may need additional funding because theyre in significant fiscal distress. The cuts have been so deep and so sustained.
Although Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo allocated 4 percent more for education in his 2014 state budget, many north country educators say their extra state aid still falls woefully short of their needs.
Overall, the executive budget increases educational aid by $807 million, but the GEA that has deducted funds from public schools since the 2009-10 school year continues to counteract state aid increases for many districts.
Rising expenses, revenue shortfalls and the 2 percent tax cap are placing additional pressure on cash-strapped school districts that have been hit hard with job and program cuts for the past several years.
Some districts have started to include budget discussions during their regular board meetings. Others plan to start number-crunching in the next few weeks.
Massena Central is projecting a $4 million shortfall, while both Potsdam and Canton school districts are facing budget gaps that exceed $2.5 million unless state lawmakers agree to shift more money to schools.
Massena interim Superintendent William W. Crist said his district is predicting an approximately $4 million shortfall, but the budget is in first draft and that projection could change.
It still has to do with where state aid numbers come in and some other calculations were still working on, Mr. Crist said. Were still in the process. I know people get anxious this time of year, but its something thats going to take time. The revenues havent been solidified. Were really at a first draft stage.
At this point, he said, the district is looking at about a $1.6 million increase in contractual obligations that include contributions to the teacher and employee retirement systems as well as health insurance. The Teachers Retirement System contributions are going up 13 percent, while contributions to the Employees Retirement System are going down slightly, according to the superintendent.
We have no control over that, he said.
Members of the districts Finance Committee met Friday morning to go over the latest numbers. The board of education will hold a budget work session thats open to the public on March 6.
Were going to be providing some additional information to the general public at the March 6 meeting. The meeting this morning was helpful. We received some direction from the Budget Committee that well be talking about more publicly in March, Mr. Crist said.
Like other districts, Massena Central is hoping that the Gap Elimination Adjustment will be eliminated and that foundation aid will be restored to help close the gap.
Theres a strong interest certainly by practitioners, superintendents and the like that this Gap Elimination Adjustment go away somehow. Foundation aid has been frozen for several years. Were hopeful that our legislators are going to be responsive to these concerns that exist, Mr. Crist said.
At this point, he said, they werent ready to discuss what cuts may have to be made to programs or personnel.
Well wait until March 6 to have that conversation. I know that the board is interested in the meeting on March 6. Hopefully thats going to be a meeting that interested community members can certainly be participating in. The board is very committed to supporting programs for students and making sure we can be proud of what we have, Mr. Crist said.
Locally, we have an obligation to keep costs down. But were a business. The savings dont come from pencils and paper clips, he said.
Ogdensburg Superintendent Timothy M. Vernsey said the biggest issue facing the city school district is the lack of state aid and the governors proposals to tie property taxes to the tax cap.
We have stayed at the tax cap level all years it has been in existence but at some point in time may have to ask voters to exceed it, Mr. Vernsey said Friday.
But, he said, the governors proposal makes it very difficult to almost impossible to do this.
Since 2008, state aid has been frozen and the state has imposed the GEA, which Mr. Vernsey said is a fancy word for simply taking money back, to the tune of $6,318,394.
Ogdensburg also has the distinction of being, I believe, number two or three in the state with the most tax-exempt property, Mr. Vernsey said. So as costs have risen over the past six years, we have simply been forced to cut positions and programs and spend down fund balance to deal with the states inadequate support for poor public schools like Ogdensburg.
The state has balanced its budget on the backs of schoolchildren for six years now and it is time to fully fund the formula, as well as make changes to it, and totally eliminate the GEA, which is just a fancy scheme to take money away from districts and force districts across the state to struggle to give children a sound basic education, Mr. Vernsey said.
At Potsdam Central, Superintendent Patrick H. Brady said the district is eyeing a budget of $28,733,895 with gap of $2.8 million. The district has a projected tax cap limit this year of 3.8 percent.
The districts aid increase was 1.97 percent, giving it an additional $221,600 to work with. Mr. Brady said the increase wont even cover the projected $300,000 increase in health care expenses alone.
Gouverneur Central School has a budget gap of about $500,000, mostly because of increased costs for health insurance and retirement, Superintendent Lauren F. French said.
District officials will spend the next week determining how to use a combination of reduction, fund balance and money drawn from three reserve accounts for recommendations to the board on how to balance the budget.
Some of the money will come from accounts reserved for unemployment, employee retirement and workers compensation, all of which have had increased costs. The district already had planned not to fill a vacancy in the business office but other potential staff reductions have not been identified yet, Mrs. French said. The amount that might be available from the fund balance to reduce the burden on the tax levy is also undetermined.
A $500,000 hike in the levy would amount to about a 9 percent tax increase. The Gouverneur district will have a budget workshop at 7 p.m. Feb. 24 in the high school cafeteria.
Based on preliminary state aid figures, many smaller districts are also facing shortfalls.
Hermon-DeKalb Superintendent Ann M. Adams said her district is facing a $70,000 deficit but has no places to trim.
We do not have any job cuts planned as we have cut to the bare minimum of who we need to run the programs and building, Ms. Adams said in an email.
The district is projecting major cost increases in health insurance, teacher retirement system, debt service and maintenance costs, such as fuel. The district is slated to receive about $60,000 more in state aid this year for operating expenses, a 1.38 percent increase from this. The board is scheduled to see its first draft of the budget at its March 10 meeting.
St. Lawrence Central, Brasher Falls, is projecting a $1.8 million gap as it prepares its 2014-15 budget, according to Superintendent Stephan J. Vigliotti Sr. Although the governors proposal shows about $1 million more in state aid for the district, the actual figure will be $400,000 to $450,000 when the GEA and other factors are taken into account.
Times staff and Johnson Newspapers writers Martha Ellen, Bob Beckstead, Sean Ewart, Amanda Purcell and Benny Fairchild contributed to this report.