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Regional Archives The Altamont Enterprise, August 12, 2010

How much federal money will local schools get?

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

With schools slated to open in a few weeks, local administrators are confused about how much money they have to spend and whom they can hire.

Last week, the state legislature finally agreed on a budget more than four months late, but figures on state aid to individual districts still have not been released.

This week, with Tuesday’s passage in the House of Representatives, Congress okayed an educational jobs bill that will send $10 billion to school districts across the country to prevent layoffs. An estimated $607 million will go to New York State; the United States Department of Education estimates the money will save about 8,100 teaching jobs in New York.

House Democrats pushed through the bill, which Republicans called wasteful and pandering to teachers’ unions; the president signed it into law right away. The rush, calling the House into session during summer break, was so that laid-off teachers, cut by cash-strapped districts, could be rehired before school starts, although local administrators say the timing will be tight at best.

The federal Department of Education will make allocations to states based on overall population and student enrollment; states will then distribute the funds based on their formulas.

Spokespeople for the State Assembly and Senate say both legislative bodies are prepared to reconvene next week so the federal funds can be appropriated, but won’t say which of two ways they want to deliver the funds.

The federal legislation lays out two possible methods — through the state aid formula or through Title 1 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965.

Title 1 is based on poverty counts, which typically favor big-city school districts. The governor wants to use the state’s own aid formula.

“The governor’s staff is drafting legislation right now to use the state aid formula,” spokeswoman Jessica Bassett told The Enterprise yesterday. “The formula will more equitably distribute that funding across every region of the state. With Title 1, it’s concentrated in one area.”

New York City, under the Title 1 distribution, would receive about 70 percent of the aid.

Local concerns

Usually, once voters pass school budgets in May, districts aren’t allowed to spend more.

“We’re waiting to see if they’ll make an exception this year,” said Michael Marcelle, Guilderland’s interim superintendent. “Do we have to go back out to the voters? We don’t know.”

He continued, “The scary thing is that we’re getting close to the beginning of school. We’re waiting for direction from the state and from the federal government.

“We’re setting our tax rate on Tuesday and we’ve gotten no state- aid runs yet,” said Marcelle yesterday. “We’re still waiting. Usually, our assemblyman will send us a copy of the runs.”

Dawn Dugan at Assemblyman John McEneny’s office said yesterday that the Ways and Means Committee has yet to come up with the numbers; she didn’t know when they would be released.

Sarita Winchell, Voorheesville’s business administrator, said her district also did not know how much state aid it would be getting.

“We’re still operating off the governor’s proposal from January, as far as the numbers from state aid,” said Berne-Knox-Westerlo’s business official, Kevin Callagy.

In the wake of predicted state aid cuts, Guilderland cut 40 jobs in its 2010-11 budget to keep tax rates down; the $87.4 million budget passed in May with just over 55 percent of the vote.

“We’re not sure who we’re allowed to hire back — just teachers or teaching assistants, too,” said Marcelle. “Once we find out how much we’ve got, I’ll sit down with administrators and form a game plan….We have people on call-back lists. As soon as we know, we’ll start making calls.”

He went on, “Adding to the madness, we’re sending letters out to parents this week, telling them who their child’s teacher is.” Classes start on Sept. 8.

Class sizes and teachers may well change, depending on what kind of funds Guilderland receives. At the high school, Marcelle said, courses that were cut may be added, changing hundreds of students’ schedules.

“A lot of dominos are going to fall,” he said, concluding, “I’ve been in the business for 36 years and this is the strangest one. We’ll do the best we can for our students, but we’d really like to know what we can and can’t do.”

New law

The federal money for education jobs is allocated by Congressional districts. Albany County is in the 21st Congressional District, which is slated to receive $13.2 million.

The law states that the funds “may be used only for compensation and benefits and other expenses, such as support services, necessary to retain existing employees, to recall or rehire former employees, and to hire new employees, in order to provide early childhood, elementary, or secondary educational and related services.”

The law also states that the funds “may not be used for general administrative expenses or for other support services expenditures.”

Carl Korn, spokesman for the New York State United Teachers, which represents 600,000 teachers and school-oriented professionals across New York, said that statewide, “13,000 jobs in education were slated to be eliminated for the upcoming school year because of the economic crisis.” NYSUT estimates that the $607 million in federal funds will restore about 8,200 jobs in New York.

“Everyone would agree, it’s better to have teachers in the classroom than walking in the unemployment line,” said Korn.

He said there has been precedent for distributing funds after the school district budgets were voted on. “It’s treated as grant money, which school districts can spend,” said Korn.

He itemized three ways that the federal money cannot be used — for rainy-day funds, to supplant state funds, or to reduce debt.

Both the Assembly Speaker’s Office and the Senate Majority Conference office told The Enterprise yesterday they plan to reconvene soon.

“We have informed members to be prepared to return to Albany for a session next week,” said Travis Proulx, a spokesman for the Senate majority conference.

He didn’t know which day. “This was unexpected money,” said Proulx. “What needs to happen is the Senate, the Assembly, and the governor need to agree on the terms of how that money will be used.”

He spoke of how the Senate, which has a slim Democratic majority, passed a property tax-relief bill for middle- to high-needs districts, which the governor vetoed.

The money needs to be managed, he said, “so it will do the most good.”

When asked whether the Senate Majority Conference favors using the state aid formula or Title 1 to distribute the funds, Proulx said, “We’ll be having that discussion with the governor and the Assembly. We want to do whatever does the most good. We haven’t made a commitment either way.”

Sisa Moyo, a spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s office, said that “no date has been set” on when the Assembly will re-convene. “We’ve said all along, if Congress passed this, we could reconvene,” said Moyo.

She pointed out that the Assembly had passed $600 million in restoration funds for schools, which the governor vetoed.

Korn said, “We think school districts can make some very good estimates right now on how much money they’ll receive.”

He pointed out that the governor originally proposed cutting $1.4 billion in state aid and that the legislature then restored about $600 million, which the governor vetoed.

“It’s coincidental that the amount from the feds is about what the legislature was going to restore,” said Korn. “School districts can go back to that to make their calculations,” he said.

“We need school districts to begin planning to spend this money. We hope the legislature acts swiftly so we have an orderly start to the school year,” he said.

Even with the new law, the state will see 6,000 jobs in education eliminated on top of the 5,000 that were cut in 2009-10, said Korn, but he concluded, “We know the economy is slowly improving. There seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel.”

— Zach Simeone contributed information on Berne-Knox-Westerlo and Saranac Hale Spencer contributed information on the Voorheesville School District.

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