Nothing ‘off the table’ as Canton, Potsdam school districts try to close major budget gaps
Thursday, January 31, 2013 - 5:33 pm

By JIMMY LAWTON

Nothing is off the table as Canton and Potsdam administrators and school boards work to close large budget gaps.

While both schools saw increases in state aid for 2013-14 in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s recently released executive budget, officials say they will need more money or deep cuts to balance budgets.

As school officials continue working on next year’s budget, Canton Central is facing an almost $2 million deficit, while Potsdam Central is looking at a $1.5 million gap between expenses and expected income.

Canton Budget Outlook

In Canton, School Superintendent Bill Gregory and the school board are working to close a $2 million budget gap.

Although state aid runs show the school receiving $1.28 million in state aid, Gregory said the numbers are misleading.

He said approximately $500,000 received from the state last year for special needs services were not included on the runs, dropping the total increase in aid to about $750,000. An additional $400,000 included in the aid can only be allocated for building improvements, he said.

“Don’t get me wrong, we are happy for any increase in aid, but the fact is, $300,000 is not going to do much on a $2 million gap,” he said.

Gregory said annual increases in employees salaries and benefits are more than double the increase in aid that can be applied to offset them.

And while administrators at many North Country schools fear the districts will become insolvent in the near future, Gregory fears Canton Central School could be there at the end of the budget season if additional aid isn’t funneled to the district.

According to Gregory, Canton has reduced its staff by more than 50 employees in the past three years.

“When the money is not there the only other thing you can do is go to programs and staff. We’ve cut our staff by roughly 20 percent. Going forward it’s virtually impossible to cut more. If we do, it will have a dramatic negative effect on our ability to educate students,” he said.

Potsdam Budget Outlook

Potsdam School Superintendent Pat Brady said the executive budget includes an additional $270,000 in state aid that can be applied to operating costs. That money will be used to reduce the district’s $1.5 million shortfall, but it will not do much toward closing the gap, he said.

Brady said the majority of the school’s new spending will target increases in employee salaries, benefits and other mandated operating costs. He estimated those increases at approximately $1 million

In total aid, Potsdam school received only $30,000 more than the previous year.

Brady said Potsdam, like many North Country school districts, has been struggling since Gap Elimination Adjustment was implemented.

Brady said the GEA was established to reign in state spending, but the state failed to deliver mandate relief that was supposed to accompany the cuts.

“Currently with our state aid for 2013-2014, we are operating on less than we were in 2009-10, but our costs have increased,” he said. “The Gap Elimination Adjustment is really hurting poor rural schools.” With many unknowns in the Gov. Cuomo’s proposed budget, Brady expects tough choices ahead.