10 May School Districts Battle Rising Costs, Unknown State Aid (NY)May 10, 2010
By: Rebecca CroniserSource: The Observer-Dispatch
It’s rare in the world of education with contract ual salary increases and state mandates, but some area school districts will spend less next year than they are this year.
Across the state, 36 percent of school districts have managed to cut spending as they continue to await the fate of the state budget and education aid.
“In this punishing fiscal climate, school boards tried to strike a balance between maintaining educational quality while keeping in mind the very real concerns of local taxpayers,” said New York State School Boards Association Executive Director Timothy Kremer.
Yet even with the cuts, school taxes will go up.
That’s because of the expected, yet unknown, cut in state aid. Without a final state budget, school districts have had to base next year’s budgets on the governor’s proposal, which would cut $1.4 billion in education.
When state aid gets cut, the only other source of revenue for schools are taxpayers.
So even though Remsen Central School District is cutting its spending by 1.6 percent, taxpayers could see their school tax levy increase by 5.75 percent – one of the highest tax levy increases in the region.
Mount Markham also will cut spending by 1 percent, but taxes will increase 3.95 percent.
“Districts that have very little taxable property will be hurt the most because they have to supplant a significant amount of state aid with taxes,” said New York State School Boards Association Director of Governmental Relations David Little.
Budget hearings are being conducted across the region this week to allow residents to ask questions of their district officials. Voters then will have their say on the budgets on T uesday, May 18.
Half of the state’s school districts are keeping their spending increases at less than 1 percent.
On average, school districts are proposing increasing their spending 1.4 percent next year, according to school tax report cards. Last year, the average increase was 2.3 percent. In the 2006—07, districts increased their spending 6.3 percent.
But in order to keep spending down, programs are being cut and school personnel are being laid off.
“The only thing a school district can do to spend less money is to get rid of people,” Little said.
Statewide, an estimated 14,000 teachers were expected to get pink slips by the end of the year.
Locally, many districts have been able to decrease the number of layoffs by not filling positions of those retiring. The effect will be the same — fewer teachers in the classroom.
Rome City School District, which will keep its spending increase to 1.77 percent, will cut 30 teachers. Most of those will be through retirements, but an unknown number will be through layoffs.
“We’ve accomplished a lot since December when the state first started withholding aid,” said Rome Superintendent Jeffrey Simons. “We’ve done all we can do to bring spending down to 1.77 percent.”
Poland Central School District will cut nine positions to keep its spending equal with last year. Three people are retiring, and one teacher and two bus drivers are being cut. The remaining cuts are coming through another trend — reducing full time positions to part time.
Fewer p rograms
Among the top programs being effected in the Mohawk Valley are summer school, Advanced Placement courses, sports, music and arts.
“Basically the reasons a child wants to go to school are what school’s can cut,” Little said. “They’re not anything anybody wants to cut, especially in this very competitive environment for college. But when you’re talking about a massive fiscal crisis, the extremities suffer to stay alive.”
Utica Superintendent James Willis said his focus when creating his district’s budget was to keep the core subjects.
If the district loses as much state aid as initially projected, several art classes will get the cut. Utica’s Director of Fine Arts Carmela Brown said about 120 students would sit in study hall instead of taking an art class.
“These cuts, in a word, would just be devastating,” Brown said about the art program.
Poland will turn its summer school program into a remedial program held during the regular school year.
Summer school is one of the main areas the governor has proposed cutting aid.
“While it’s still unknown what the final aid will be for summer school, school districts that are budgeting conservatively have cut back on that program,” Little said.
The state budget already is more than a month late, and experts say an agreement does not seem to be close.
There is some hope that schools could get more money as the legislature and governor hash out the budget.
If additional state money is for thcoming, it could be used to readjust the tax rate or put into the fund balance for planning next year, according to Oneida-Herkimer BOCES Superintendent Howard Mettelman.
But, unless that additional money comes as a grant-in-aid — that would require legislative action — it could not be used to reinstate programs or staff that have been cut for the 2010-11 school year.