Proposed state aid increases leave gaping holes Potsdam, Canton budgets
Saturday, February 1, 2014 - 8:52 am

By JIMMY LAWTON

Proposed increases in state aid at Canton and Potsdam Central School are so small they won’t even offset the rise in health benefits let alone pay for other cost increases, according to administrators.

Canton Central School Superintendent Bill Gregory says his school will receive $167,050 in non-categorical aid for 2014-15. In order to maintain the programs, staff, athletics and extras the school currently offers, he said the school would need roughly $2 million more.

“It’s too early for an exact figure, but my best guess is that we will be around $2 million short,” he said.

Potsdam Central School Superintendent Patrick Brady said, after sorting though Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s budget proposal announced last week, his school will see an increase of about $133,152 that can actually be used to offset rising costs. He said that amount won’t even cover the increased cost of employee health insurance.

Brady said that figure represents the increase in “non-categorical” aid. It is the amount of money the state is restoring to the Gap Elimination Adjustment, which was first introduced in the 2010-2011 fiscal year as a way to help close New York’s then $10 billion budget deficit.

Known as the GEA, the measure resulted in a huge slash in school aid that has cost both Potsdam and Canton school districts more than $10 million each in aid over the past four years.

Gregory said it’s hard to understand why the state is still withholding school funding under the GEA, while the governor claims the state has a $2 billion surplus.

“One of the conundrums we face is we are told that there is a budget surplus. I can’t understand why they are still withholding aid that was designed to close the gap if we now have a surplus,” he said.

Both Brady and Gregory said the governor’s call for funding universal pre-kindergarten, investments in technology and rewards for outstanding teachers are good ideas, but the reality is schools can’t even afford to pay for their current curriculums.

“These are very laudable initiatives in good times, but these aren’t good times,” Brady said.

Brady said the governor proposed a $807 million increase in school aid across the board, but most of it was geared toward new initiatives, not operating expenses.

He said the State Board of Regents recommended and additional $1.3 billion in funding for schools, while the Education Conference Board suggested $1.5 billion would be needed for school districts to meet their spending obligations.

“The $800 million doesn’t get anywhere near those recommendations,” Brady said. “It’s very difficult to say what is specifically going through governor’s mind in presenting a budget that provides very little funding for basic operations,” he said.

Since the GEA was enacted, both Canton and Potsdam have reduced their staff by roughly 25 percent, courses have been eliminated and extra curricular activities have been slashed.

The districts had hoped to survive the funding cuts buy trimming their budgets, but the aid restoration has been too slow and the quality of education provided by the schools is taking a hit.

“Over the past five years we reduced staff, cut programs and used fund balances to get by, but we are receiving less state aid now than we got in 2008-2009, and the cost of operations has gone way up,” Brady said.

“We lost a quarter of our workforce over the last several years. We cut 37 of our curricular offerings. You are going to hear me say this again and again, but we really can’t afford to lose one more teacher and still maintain a quality teaching program,” Gregory said. “There has to be fundamental change in the aid distribution.”

Superintendents, school board members and state representatives have been calling for a change in the state aid distribution formula for years, but little has changed despite their protests.

Stakeholders claim the formula provides aid to schools that don’t need it, and fails to provide enough to the schools that rely on it.

Gregory says a 1 percent increase in his school budget is about $84,000, while there are schools in more prosperous area that could more than offset the GEA by raising their taxes by 1 percent.

He said sparsely populated areas are impacted disproportionately by the aid cuts and the budget cap. Until the formula is changed, rural areas will suffer, he added.

Both superintendents are hopeful the state legislature will provide additional funding before the budget is finalized, but neither Gregory nor Brady believe it will be enough to offset cuts.

“In the coming months we are going to be taken a very close look at our budgets and plug in the numbers and see what our gap is,” Brady said. “And we are going to continue advocating for more equitable distribution of aid.”