School aid falls short in Cuomo’s budget, some say

Most local school districts would receive a boost in state aid in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposed 2014-15 state budget, but some educators said the increases would fail to alleviate the schools’ financial strain.

The $807 million overall funding increase includes $682 million in general school aid, while the rest is earmarked for prekindergarten, teacher merit pay and an expansion of technical programming.

After-school programs would receive $720 million over five years, with the first installment of $160 million available in the 2015-16 school year.

Hamilton-Fulton-Montgomery Board of Cooperative Educational Services Superintendent Patrick Michel said the governor is adding programs when the existing programs are struggling to survive.

“We are always appreciative of increases [in aid],” Michel said. “However, those increases on top of the property tax cap [are] going to force districts to cut more programs. The increases are not even close to sustain what they already have.”

The Mayfield and Lake Pleasant school districts would receive state-aid increases of more than 8 percent.

The Northville Central School District would receive $3.2 million, which would be up 6.5 percent from the current year, but the district still would have work to do to cover this year’s budget increases, District Superintendent Debra Lynker said.

“We are thrilled that we are going to get the increase, and I hope that the final numbers really turn out that way,” Lynker said. “We have a significant increase in our budget, and this will certainly help cover some of that.”

Voters in the Northville school district earlier this month rejected a proposed merger with the Mayfield district.

Under Cuomo’s proposal, the Broadalbin-Perth Central School District would be the only local district to receive a decrease in state aid. The amount would drop by 1.6 percent.

District Superintendent Stephen Tomlinson said some decrease was expected because of a reduction in services from BOCES, but not as much of a drop as the governor proposed.

Tomlinson said the district will contact the state Education Department this week to make sure the aid is correct.

“The governor’s proposal does not come out to support education,” Tomlinson said.

Tomlinson said while he supports prekindergarten for all students, he questions why the governor wants to put more money into pre-K while some districts are considering cutting kindergarten programs because of funding problems.

“It doesn’t make any sense,” Tomlinson said. “That is nothing but a political ploy because he knows full well that nobody can argue the fact supporting pre-K is a good thing to do. However, until you fully fund kindergarten and make sure school districts aren’t going to have to consider cutting that, it makes absolutely no sense.”

The governor wants to put a $2 billion bond act before voters in November to upgrade technology in classrooms.

Tomlinson said the proposition is a little late. He said Broadalbin-Perth already has invested in its existing technology through various upgrades and the recent capital project.

Michel and Tomlinson said Cuomo’s proposal provides little help with the day-to-day expenses and growing pension and health care costs.

“School districts need, more than anything else, to maintain the fundamental programs that we have,” Tomlinson said. “They need to start supporting the mandates that they are throwing down on us. The governor has asked us to make good financial decisions, and that’s what we have done, but we are now taking a hit for it.”

“School districts are like the old victorians in Gloversville where they have a 1920s furnace and are burning oil to heat their home,” Michel said. “They wonder why at the end of the month they have no money for food because they don’t have the political will to change the system.

“What the governor is proposing is basically an empty shell,” Michel said. “You have a great pre-k program and after-school program, but the core programs in between those two things, which really matter, are underfunded and collapsing.”

The governor’s budget also proposes a two-year property tax freeze through state rebates to homeowners in local jurisdictions that stay within the 2 percent tax-increase cap.

Michel said the proposed system to rebate taxpayers would be a challenge.

“What are you going to do two years from now when they stop funding that bill?” Michel said. “What’s going to happen to property taxes?”

State Sen. Hugh T. Farley, R-Niskayuna, said, “An awful lot of the education money is taken up with pre-K, and I suspect there will be a lot of adjustments in this, and I’ve had a lot of calls about the distribution of school aid.

“The concerns of the school districts is well taken. I am pleased with the tax cuts to make New York state more competitive and I think that is very important for the upstate areas. But for so much of this, the devil is in the details, and we are going to have to examine all of the budget very carefully.”

State Assemblyman Marc Butler, R-Newport, said the state must focus on mandate relief and job creation.

“The governor outlined an ambitious budget agenda [Tuesday], but I’d like to remind him and my legislative colleagues that we must focus on measures that will help hard-working New York families the most,” Butler said. “We need to provide communities with unfunded mandate relief and spend wisely to bring meaningful tax relief to our families and job creators.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.