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NY state budget keeps GEA but increases funding to north country schools

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North country school districts were relieved that a budget agreement reached before the April 1 deadline included an increase in foundation aid for some schools and reduction of the Gap Elimination Adjustment.

“I’m happy, but I’m cautiously happy,” Ogdensburg Superintendent Timothy M. Vernsey said. “We certainly aren’t out of the woods yet. More work needs to be done on the foundation formula, and the Gap Elimination Adjustment needs to go.”

The proposed $138 billion state budget includes $22 billion for education. The state Legislature managed to secure an additional $300 million for schools above what was originally proposed in the governor’s budget.

Lyme Central School Superintendent Karen M. Donahue acknowledged an increase in the district’s funding, but said until the Gap Elimination Adjustment is completely removed, planning is nearly impossible.

She said that because the Gap Elimination Adjustment was first proposed as a temporary measure, many schools, including hers, tapped their reserves to maintain as many programs and positions as possible while staying within the 2 percent tax cap.

“Financially we’ll be OK for another year,” Mrs. Donahue said. She said rebuilding the loss in the district’s fund balance will not happen overnight.

Even though her school district and others waged letter-writing campaigns and sent representatives to Albany to protest, the controversial Gap Elimination Adjustment remains in the budget.

“This year’s budget increases overall state aid, but unfortunately the funding formula does not address the specific needs of several area school districts,” Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa, said in a news release. “I have been working with many superintendents throughout the budget process, and after further discussions with them this morning, I am resolved to continue to fight for more direct aid to our region so our children can get the education they deserve.”

Watertown City School District Superintendent Terry N. Fralick said the district is grateful to receive an additional $500,000 in funding. He said he hopes the district can remain operating in the 2014-15 school year as it has this year.

“Next year it looks favorable, but we’re still facing a $4 million shortfall,” Mr. Fralick said. “After 2014-2015, it will be a tremendous challenge.”

Mr. Fralick said the funding reductions from the Gap Elimination Adjustment and the stagnation in foundation, or operating, aid has left districts like Watertown’s dipping into fund balances and reserves to keep programs intact.

“We’ve lost over $12 million over the last five to six years, and you don’t just get that back,” Mr. Fralick said. “We lowered our reserves, and if things don’t change, we’re facing dire consequences.”

Lowville Central School District Superintendent Cheryl L. Steckly said she is optimistic with the unofficial numbers. The district will receive $300,000 more than projected in the governor’s proposed budget.

“It looks more comfortable. We still might make reductions, but this gives us a little more breathing room,” Mrs. Steckly said.

She said the new numbers are good news, but district officials will need a few days to figure out how the money can be used.

Parishville-Hopkinton Central School Superintendent Darin P. Saiff said that while the new budget is a relief, the district lost $2 million because of the Gap Elimination Adjustment over the past five years. The $175,000 the district will pay this year will be far less than the $603,604 it gave up in 2011-12 school year.

“The increase means it’s going to save jobs, and saving jobs means saving courses for our children,” Mr. Saiff said. “We need to maintain what we have, and after years of cuts, it is certainly a positive thing.”

Potsdam Central School Superintendent Patrick H. Brady said his district will receive more than $300,000 above the governor’s proposed budget. Mr. Brady said he wasn’t surprised that his district will receive more money, given the efforts of local legislators who recognize the needs of north country schools.

The budget also ensures that results from the upcoming Common Core tests in grades four through eight won’t go on a student’s permanent record. The budget also delays for two years the use of Common Core tests to decide whether students in grades three through eight should be promoted to the next grade.

The budget prohibits Common Core testing before third grade and includes increased funds for teacher development to help educators adjust to the new standards.

The budget also provides funding for the teacher excellence fund for those rated as “highly effective.” The teachers will be eligible to receive up to $20,000 in annual supplemental compensation through the fund.

The budget offers $8 million in funding for a new Office of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math scholarship program. Full-tuition scholarships to any SUNY or CUNY college or university will be offered to the top 10 percent of high school graduates who pursue a STEM career and promise to work in New York for five years.

Jefferson County school districts will receive $191,283,047. Not counting building aid, that is an $8,671,038 increase from the 2013-14 budget. The districts will face cuts from the Gap Elimination Adjustment of $5,068,560.

St. Lawrence County school districts will receive $200,207,839 in state funding. Not counting building aid, that represents a $8,089,032 increase from the 2013-14 budget. The Gap Elimination Adjustment will cut $4,715,678 countywide.

School districts in Lewis County will receive $54,361,052. Not counting building aid, that amounts to a $2,591,414 increase from the 2013-14 budget. The Gap Elimination Adjustment will cut $1,221,750 in state funding to the schools.

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