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Ogdensburg school board members meet with legislators over state aid


Ogdensburg City School District Board of Education members recently met with state Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, and Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa, to ask for more equitable distribution of state aid and an end to the state’s Gap Elimination Adjustment.

School board president Ronald N. Johnson said the meetings were positive.

“We went to them with this information to let them know we have done everything,” Mr. Johnson said. “The governor has asked us to use our fund balance; we did that. We were asked to reduce staff and cut all waste; we’ve done that. They asked us to negotiate good contracts, take pay freezes and lower wages and lower health insurance contributions. We’ve done all that. We’ve cut right to the bone. We’ve laid it out on the table for the legislators; the ball is in their court.”

School district officials have been saying for over two years that the district faces fiscal insolvency. Approximately 18 percent of the district’s staff has been cut by 59.6 full-time equivalents. Approximately two-thirds of the reduction is through attrition, while one third is through lay-offs since 2007.

“In this situation, as we explained to our legislators, we had to tell many people that they no longer have jobs in this district,” Mr. Johnson said. “It is a very difficult thing to tell people they are no longer employed and have to look elsewhere. It became very personal.”

Extracurricular activities have been cut in several areas: elementary yearbook, elementary student council, elementary Drama Club, Whiz Quiz, Model United Nations, Mock Trail, class advisors for grades 7 through 8, Earth Club, Drama Club, French Club, Future Business Leaders of America, Enviro Thon, Pep Band, middle School Art Club and high school Art Club.

Funding cuts in program electives and student support include: a driver education’s course, writing labs, home and career electives, reduced academic intervention services, high school reading, research seminar, business electives, department heads, assistant coaches, advance placement labs, lifeguarding course, hunter safety course, educational karate program, intramural sports, school resource officer, administrative reorganization, and counseling services.

“It’s just shame we have lost what we lost,” Mr. Johnson said. “These are the types of things that keep kids in school. For the kids that are standing on the edge of the cliff, these were the things that were holding them back. Thankfully people have come forward and volunteered to save some of these programs. But when you have layoffs, you have to cut programs.”

The school has said a combination of Gap Elimination Adjustment and inequitable distribution of state aid has led to the school’s fiscal woes.

Since the Gap Elimination Adjustment started in Ogdensburg City School District lost over $6 million. The current Gap Elimination Adjustment for the Ogdensburg City School District is $681,758, or approximately 4 percent of Foundation Aid.

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.

Pointing to a study by Rutgers University Professor Bruce Baker, Superintendent Timothy M. Vernsey said the state earned a grade of F — ranking 42nd nationally on how school funding is generated and distributed. The study measures per-pupil spending by school districts while also examining the percentage of students living in poverty in each school district.

“Our ability to raise the tax base is on par with some of the poorer areas in New York City,” Mr. Vernsey said. “We should be looking to other states on how to distribute school aid funding, such as Massachusetts which is No. 2 on the list.”

Both Mrs. Russell and Mrs. Ritchie said Monday that the meeting was a positive one, and they vowed to fight for more funding and call an end to the GEA.

Mrs. Ritchie called the GEA a “gimmick” that “disproportionately punishes rural schools.”

Under the state Senate’s new budget plan, schools would receive $812 million more in state aid, and the aid-cutting Gap Elimination Adjustment would be eliminated over two years, Mrs. Ritchie said. The bipartisan Senate plan includes $541 million in “GEA restoration” — $200 million more than proposed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

“Ending the GAP elimination adjustment and the fact that we were able put in an addition $217 million above the governor’s proposed budget into the gap elimination restoration and secure $145 for pre-K or gap is moving in the right direction,” Mrs. Ritchie said.

But Mrs. Russell said the Senate’s proposed budget plan “low-balled” the amount of funding needed in several areas, including aid to public schools and how it funds pre-kindergarten.

“I was shocked to see how far short the Senate fell in responding to the school funding crisis that we are facing,” Mrs. Russell said. “Now that final negotiations are set to begin, I will be fighting with everything I have to ensure our schools get the help they so desperately need.”

She said the Assembly budget proposal increased aid to schools by nearly $1.1 billion for 2014-15, which is $402 million over the executive budget. Mrs. Russell said the Assembly was able to secure an additional $335 million in school aid funding and $48 million to restore funding gaps caused by the Gap Elimination Adjustment.

But Mr. Vernsey said that without a complete overhaul of the Gap Elimination Adjustment and an increase in state aid for next year, the school will still not be able to provide a “sound basic education.”

“Unfortunately we seem to be in a state of have and have not when it comes to the state of distributing the money,” Mr. Vernsey said. “I can almost guarantee you there are plenty of other districts in the state that haven’t cut as much as we have.”

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