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Regional Archives The Altamont Enterprise, December 18, 2008
Guv proposes $700M in school aid cuts
By Melissa Hale-Spencer
This week, local school districts, like those across the state, are crunching numbers and hatching plans in response to the governor’s proposed cuts to school aid, announced on Tuesday.
Governor David Paterson, releasing his budget a month ahead of the constitutional requirement, said that recommending a reduction in school aid was “personally difficult” for him as he had been, during his time in the legislature, a strong advocate for increased aid to education. Paterson cited the “grim reality” of the state’s current fiscal crisis.
His executive budget reduces school aid next year by $698 million, down 3.3 percent from this year.
The depths of these cuts will force school boards to go beyond spending freezes and deferred maintenance, said Timothy Kremer, executive director of the New York States School Boards Association, in a release. Cuts to staff will impact local communities and reduce opportunities for students, he said.
If the legislature were to adopt the governor’s plan, the Berne-Knox-Westerlo School District, serving the rural Helderberg Hilltowns, would see its aid next year decreased by $705,643, said Business Administrator Timothy Holmes. State aid this year paid for 46 percent of the district’s $20 million budget, he said.
“It’s even uglier than it looks,” Holmes said of the proposed $705,643 decrease. Next year’s BKW budget will go up 3 to 5 percent because of already agreed-upon contracts and increases in costs for needed supplies and materials. “So really, we’re talking about a gap of $1.3 to $1.5 million that has to be filled,” said Holmes.
The district has a fund balance of about $800,000, just over the state-set limit of 4 percent. “You can’t use all of that,” said Holmes. “It’s very important to have. It’s like a savings account at home. You need it for a rainy day.”
BKW administrators and school board members have yet to make any decisions about how the gap will be closed. “The next couple of months will be crucial,” said Holmes. “I don’t see how we’ll avoid staff reduction.”
Asked about his reaction to the governor’s proposal, Holmes said, “A portion of me is very angry, but we’re in a fiscal crisis and cuts have to be made.”
At nearby Voorheesville, a small suburban district in the town of New Scotland, wealthier than the Hilltowns, the assistant superintendent for business, Sarita Winchell, had a more fatalistic reaction.
“Everybody has to take a hit,” she said. “We have to realize the revenue is not there for the state. Somewhere something has to give….Education has to contribute something to balance the budget. You want the best for your students, but where’s the money going to come from? The governor has to balance the budget.”
Voorheesville currently has a $21.7 million budget, about 28 percent of which is covered by state aid, she said.
The proposed decrease, Winchell said, will depend on board actions but would range from $660,000 to $870,000.
Like Holmes, she said that increasing expenses compound the loss in state aid, making “a big gap.”
The administration is currently having discussions, Winchell said, and will present options for the school board to consider in January.
“We’re working towards a prudent plan to minimize the impact on the students,” she said.
Guilderland, a large suburban district, has an $84 million budget this year, about 27 percent of which is covered by state aid, said Assistant Superintendent for Business Neil Sanders.
Figuring the proposed state-aid reductions is “a little tricky,” said Sanders, because the school board recently gave a green light to planning for full-day kindergarten, if finances allowed. The district currently has a half-day kindergarten program and a committee that studied the issue for a year strongly recommended moving to a full-day program. The state gives one year of aid for the year of transition.
If Guilderland stayed with the half-day kindergarten program, the aid cut proposed by the governor would amount to $2.7 million, without building aid; with building aid, the reduction would total $3.15 million.
“Anticipating going ahead with full-day kindergarten, we put in our state aid forms,” said Sanders. Guilderland would get $939,000 more in state aid next year for the transition to full-day kindergarten, he said.
“We’re taking that out of the picture; it’s skewing the numbers,” said Sanders.
Guilderland is planning an open forum on Jan. 13 at 7:30 p.m. at the high school to inform the community about the aid cuts, and to get a sense of priorities as administrators craft a district budget for next year.
Earlier this year, upon learning the school district was a million dollars over the state limit for surplus funds, the school board had decided to ignore the requirement and keep the money available for “a mid-year correction.”
Guilderland’s unreserved, undesignated fund balance of $4.4 million was outside the limit set by state law; the rainy-day account is not supposed to be greater than 4 percent of the district’s budget for the upcoming school year. Guilderland has $1,020,876 over the state-set limit, Sanders told The Enterprise earlier.
In the past, when Guilderland has been over the limit, as it has in recent years, the school board has put the money into reserve funds allowed by law. This year, all eight board members present at the Oct. 7 meeting agreed flexibility was more important than following the law.
“Given the economic realities,” said Sanders yesterday, “certainly we knew we were facing a significant cut. We’ve already put into place a partial freeze on expenditures.” Equipment purchases are being reduced to only the essential; use of substitutes and overtime work is being reduced; and expenses for field trips and conferences are being reduced, Superintendent John McGuire told The Enterprise last week.
“We certainly understand the situation in New York State and throughout the country,” said Sanders. “We hoped the cuts would not be as dramatic as they are. Our goal will be to preserve the quality of our educational programs without overburdening the taxpayers. We’ll look at ways to do things differently and more creatively.”