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School superintendents discuss state aid

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MASSENA - Now that the state budget has passed, local school officials have concrete numbers to plug into their 2014-15 budget proposals.

But, even with an increase over what Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo had initially proposed, some school superintendents say they still have some work to do to balance their budgets.

“We will obviously work these numbers into our report. Every little bit helps,” said Massena Central School Interim Superintendent William H. Flynn, whose district was looking at a gap of approximately $4.4 million.

Massena will receive $28,535,719, which is $635,756 over the $27,899,963 Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo had proposed for the district.

“It’s a little over a 4 percent increase over the current year,” Mr. Flynn said.

District officials have been using the governor’s number in their budget preparations until they receive a firm state aid figure.

“This will help by a little over half a million as far as planning purposes. This brings (the gap) to under $4 (million). We still do have a significant gap,” he said.

The district’s Finance Committee is scheduled to meet at 5 p.m. Thursday, followed by a regular board of education session at 6:30 p.m., and Mr. Flynn said they’re still trying to close their gap between revenues and expenditures.

“We’re dealing with scenarios that the board had set up using amounts of fund balance to get to where we needed to be. We are still going through that exercise. We’re optimistic that we can pull together from the report what the board wants,” he said.

Although the district does have about $10 million in a restricted Employee Benefits Accrued Liability Reserve (EBALR) fund, which can only be accessed with the approval of the state comptroller’s office, the district can only use $344,000 of that money, according to Mr. Flynn.

“We had planned to use around $630,000 in the fund balance account. We’re not able to use as much from that particular reserve,” he said.

He said they’ve been meeting with administrators and directors to talk about how to close the gap.

“We worked on various scenarios using different amounts of fund balance. We’re probably going to present most of that, if not all of that, information on Thursday night and we’ll go from there. I’m not sure what the board’s final recommendation is going to be at this point. We’re just prepared to move in whatever direction the board would like to see based on the information provided.”

The Potsdam Central School District is scheduled to receive $13,653,926, an increase of $273,630 over Gov. Cuomo’s $13.483,976 proposal, and an increase of $504,479 over their 2013-14 state aid.

“Our gap before we received the state aid numbers today was $118,762. That would fill our gap in the budget,” Superintendent Patrick H. Brady said.

He said that, throughout the budget process, they’ve been using additional fund balance to reduce their gap so they would not have to make cuts beyond what they’ve done in past years. When the district’s Finance Committee meets tonight, they’ll be discussing how to use the additional monies they’ve received.

“In order to offset any cuts this year, we added about $600,000 more fund balance into our budget, which is a significant amount. We will be recommending to reduce the amount of fund balance in our budget with this additional state aid,” Mr. Brady said.

He said that, while they appreciate the increase in state aid and also that the governor and legislature were able to reach an on-time budget, schools like Potsdam are still receiving less of an increase they last year.

“For Potsdam Central School, this increase is approximately $200,000 less of an increase than we had last year. We are still receiving less funding than we did in 2008-09 by approximately $430,000. If you look at our operating aid in 2008-09 to 2014-15, it’s $430,000 less. But the cost of business continues to go up. So, while we are pleased to see additional aid above the governor’s proposal, we are still being underfunded. There’s no question about it,” Mr. Brady said.

“In terms of the gap elimination adjustment, we have received millions less in the last four years than we should have received. It’s very difficult to continue to provide programming when we’re underfunded. However, after several years of cutting staff and programming, this year we decided that we would look at the increasing the fund balance rather than going back to further cuts. That’s only sustainable for a short period of time. We’re receiving less support from the state and we are very reluctant to palace that shift onto our local taxpayers,” he said.

Mr. Brady said the increased costs and decreased funding, leading to a depletion of reserve funds, need to be addressed by state officials.

“Those are the tough issues we have not seen the state tackle. That would include the inequitable funding formula that’s in place. We’ll continue to beat the drum for more equitable state aid and mandate relief. Those are two areas that the state really needs to take on in a serious manner,” he said.

Norwood-Norfolk Central School will receive $13,038,643 in state aid, which represents a $712,628 increase over the $12,626,089 Gov. Cuomo had proposed for the district. That’s an increase of $535,627 over what they received in 2013-14.

“We had a little bit of an increase,” Superintendent James M. Cruikshank said. “It wasn’t full restoration. We’re still below the levels we were in 2008. This at least gets us back on the playing field.”

He said the additional funding is welcome at a time when they were facing a gap of $632,000 while using $1.4 million from their reserves and fund balance.

Among their proposals to close that gap was the elimination of eight full-time equivalent positions, which includes core teachers, support staff and academic intervention services. That move would save $498,000.

But now, Mr. Cruikshank said, their gap is down to about $72,000.

“We’re devoting an historic level from our fund balance and reserves,” he said.

But, for the time being, none of the potential reductions they’ve been discussing are in the budget, according to the superintendent, who said the spending plan adds another fourth- and fifth-grade teacher because of concerns over large class sizes next school year.

“Right now we’re comfortable,” he said, noting they now needed to determine what kind of a reduction to make to close the $72,000 gap.

“We still have to get to closing the gap of $72,000, what reductions would have a minimal impact on programming and see what we can do from there,” Mr. Cruikshank said.

The district’s board of education meets for a budget work session at 6:30 p.m. tonight to go over the latest numbers.

In Brasher Falls, the St. Lawrence Central School District saw their state aid rise from $13,708,716 in 2013-14 to $15,217,888 in 2014-15. They will be receiving $1,021,626 more than Gov. Cuomo’s proposal of $14,730,342.

During their March board of education meeting, Superintendent Stephan J. Vigliotti Sr. said that they were looking at a gap of $1.7 million between revenues and expenditures if they maintained the status quo and did not add any positions.

Because of that gap, they had provided the St. Lawrence Central United Teachers union with a list of 23 positions that may be affected by reductions in the budget. He said, under the terms of the union’s contract, district officials are contractually obligated to notify them in March of any potential reductions.

Mr. Vigliotti was unavailable for comment Monday.

The Colton-Pierrepont Central School District will be receiving just over $2.6 million in total state aid, which is a 7.54 percent increase over what they got for the 2013-2014 school year.

Superintendent Joseph A. Kardash said that the aid, which totals $2,602,153, was about $65,000 more than what was initially in Mr. Cuomo’s proposal. That being said, the Gap Elimination Adjustment is still a significant area of concern for Mr. Kardash.

“If you see how little of a GEA we saw, it was my expectation that the GEA would drop in half but we did not see that,” Mr. Kardash said. “If you look at the other schools in the area, the elimination of the GEA was more effective. It looks like CPCS didn’t have the gap eliminated as much as the other schools. It probably affects the other schools more than us because they require more aid.

“(The GEA) would affect Canton-Potsdam more than us because of their dependence being higher.”

CPCS is facing a $223,257 GEA, a $70,000 difference from last year’s mark that approached $300,000.

“This would put us in the neighborhood of less than a $200,000 increase than last year which is limited because of our tax cap of 0.85 percent. So we weren’t able to raise revenue on the tax side,” Mr. Kardash said. “We’re not in a position to add programs. At this time we increased our appropriated fund balance to make up the difference. We also reduced one high school math position.”

For Parishville-Hopkinton, they are looking at a $6,030,196 total for state aid, which represents a $125,076 increase from this last year’s total. “The proposed aid to the district was losing $43,917 or a downswing of 0.74 percent. Without building aid, Gov. Cuomo’s proposal had called for a hike of $1,773 or a possible increase of 0.03 percent. That was on the Governor’s proposal,” Superintendent Darin P. Saiff said. “Coming into this school year, the (Gap Elimination Adjustment) was $338,991 and the Governor proposed restoring $57,704. The final state aid proposals were better than what we thought.”

The state aid increase equals a 2.12 percent rise from last year. “That increased our GEA $163,853. For our district, that’s where we’re seeing the largest increase,” Mr. Saiff said. “I’m happy that we’ve seen an increase over the executive budget. We’d still like to see a total elimination of the GEA as it’s still scheduled to take back $175,138 which makes the total about $2 million in GEA over the last five years.”

Victor Barbosa contributed to this report.

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