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Ogdensburg superintendent says state’s lack of aid reform will hurt city schools’ future

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OGDENSBURG — Fiscal restrictions under the state’s tax cap and a lack of state aid have forced the Ogdensburg City School District to a point of “critical crisis,” according to Superintendent Timothy M. Vernsey, who says the state must distribute aid more equitably to help poor districts.

“It is also time for leadership, both legislatively and at the governor’s mansion, to do the right thing,” Mr. Vernsey said. “What needs to be done is a commission needs to be formed to study how we distribute school aid. That is what needs to happen, and no one has had the guts to do it.”

Under Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s current budget proposal, the city school district is set to receive an additional $284,831 in state aid for the 2014-15 school year, excluding building aid — a 1.3 percent increase from this year.

“I don’t even look at it that way,” Mr. Vernsey said. “I don’t consider that an increase. All that is, you’re knocking off $284,000 from the already ridiculous Gap Elimination Adjustment, which reached $963,113 this year — almost a million dollars.”

The Gap Elimination Adjustment is money that is deducted from state aid originally promised to school districts based on state aid formulas. Under the GEA, a portion of the state’s annual education funding shortfall is divided among all school districts throughout the state and reflected as a reduction in school district state aid.

Including the 2014-15 school year’s proposed adjustment, the district’s total aid lost to the Gap Elimination Adjustments is $6,318,394 since the 2010-11 school year.

Ogdensburg is one of the top districts in the state with the most tax-exempt property, Mr. Vernsey said, leaving few property owners to shoulder the financial burden.

“The problem with the Gap Elimination Adjustment is that it hurts the poorest districts the most,” he said. “It hurts the districts that are heavily reliant on state aid.”

“If you’re a well-to-do district that relies on your tax base and not state aid and the state aid is cut, it’s not that big of a deal because it wasn’t that big of a percentage of your budget,” he said. “But when your budget is 60 to 62 percent state aid, it puts all of us in a very difficult spot to fulfill our mission to educate students even in a sound, basic way.”

The increase in total aid for the Ogdensburg City School District has amounted to 3 percent, or $629,946, since the 2008-09 school year, according to a study by the state’s Council of Superintendents.

“When you couple that with loss of foundation aid, which is extremely significant, that is the reason why our fund balance has gone down since that time,” Mr. Vernsey said. “We have built it up a little bit, but it is certainly not a healthy fund balance. We’ve spent fund balance and we eliminated teachers and programs to make up for the loss of aid.”

The district has cut 60 positions in the past five years. Mr. Vernsey said the district has exhausted all of its options when it comes to further cuts.

“Education is a people business,” he said. “You can’t put 20 kindergartners or seniors in a room and hook up a flat screen and say ‘there you go’. Teaching is a human endeavor. Our budget is 80 percent salaries and benefits. So it’s 80 percent people.”

The school already has started budget deliberations with teachers to find cost-saving measures for retirement benefits, Mr. Vernsey said. But some mandates such as health care cannot be reduced, and little relief is offered.

“There have been some mandates that will save money down the road, but we have had no mandate relief that has saved us any money in the present,” Mr. Vernsey said.

He said the school is expected to hold a meeting with legislators about the issue in March.

“I guess we have reached a point, in my opinion, where it has to be said: ‘Enough is enough,’” Mr. Vernsey said. “Any more of this and we can’t fulfill our mission. We can’t educate the children, the future in New York state. And when that happens, it will cost a lot more in the future than it is costing them right now.”

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