Local BOCES head: State still fails to give schools equitable aid

JOHNSTOWN – Despite Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposed increases in state aid in 2013-14 for New York’s schools, HFM BOCES school districts will still lose nearly $60 million in aid over the past four years to the state’s Gap Elimination Adjustment, a news release said.

“We applaud the governor’s commitment to education seen in his budget proposals and the new initiatives in the State of the State message. And we certainly appreciate the $889 million increase in proposed aid for school districts around the state,” Hamilton-Fulton-Montgomery Board of Cooperative Educational Services Superintendent Patrick Michel said in a news release. “However, we shouldn’t allow the ‘attaboys’ to overshadow the fact that districts have been, and continue to be, decimated by the GEA and inequitable distribution of aid under the Foundation Aid formula.”

The region represented by HFM BOCES averaged $14.8 million cut annually from state aid by the GEA.

Although Cuomo’s budget proposal offers a 4.72 percent increase in school aid on average to HFM BOCES’ component school districts, the region will still be $1.4 million below the aid received in 2009-10, the year before the GEA was enacted.

“For at least the past four years, our districts have slashed programs and staff, and emptied fund balances in an effort to offset major cuts in education aid and the rising costs of operating a school district,” Michel said in the release. “We all need to see the bigger picture and not assume the governor’s budget solves our problems.”

Cuomo presented his Executive Budget on Tuesday, offering new funding for full-day pre-kindergarten in high-need school districts, early college programs to help high school students accelerate and extended school day programs.

In addition, the proposed budget increases basic school aid by $611 million. High-need school districts will receive 75 percent of the 2013-14 allocated increase and 69 percent of total school aid. The aid includes $272 million for general support, $289 million for increased reimbursement in expense-based aid programs, and $50 million for a new round of competitive grants.

“We need to play the game on the field we are given. The political will to tackle Triborough, eliminate the GEA and make the Foundation Aid formula equitable doesn’t seem to exist,” Michel said. “But the governor has taken some positive steps, acknowledging that he understands and values the need for a solid and sustainable education system in this state. We need to do our share and find collaborative solutions using the resources we have at hand until more substantive reform can be managed.”

Gov. Cuomo also instructed the State Education Department to increase the standards for teacher certification and require longer, more intensive and high-quality student-teaching experience in a school setting.

The governor plans to link compliance with the new teacher evaluation system with increases in state aid. School districts will not be eligible for aid increases unless they have fully implemented the teacher evaluation process for the 2013-14 school year by Sept 1.

The Executive Budget provides $11 million to offer $15,000 in annual stipends for four years to the most effective teachers, beginning with math and science teachers.

The budget also supports an innovative program designed to transform schools into community hubs that integrate social, health and other services, as well as after-school programming to support students and their families.

“We talk about collaboration all the time, not just between schools but with area agencies and businesses. Steps like this that enable us to help students and families are positive,” Michel said in the release.

Borrowing from the future

One element of the budget proposal would allow school districts to “lock in” a stable rate for pension contributions, the release said.

Districts face dramatically escalating and variable increases in pension contributions each year. A stable rate would allow a level of predictability in annual budgeting, the release said.

The governor’s plan encourages districts to “borrow” from future savings expected under the recently implemented Tier 6 level in the state retirement system to enable reduced contributions now, the release said.

“This is a potentially risky strategy, since it underfunds the system. State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli said New York’s plan has been one of the strongest in the country because of the disciplined fiscal management behind it. The governor’s idea rests on some future assumptions that need to be looked at carefully,” Michel said in the release.