OBSERVER Staff Writer
With the proposed state budget released this week, local administrators at schools are reacting to the amount of state aid received by area districts. Gov. Andrew Cuomo said state aid will increase by 4 percent statewide. Other incentives included competitive grants for lengthening the school day or year as well as grants for top educator in a district.
While the proposed budget is subject to review by legislators and may be changed, local officials are weighing in on how the executive budget will affect their respective districts.
Brocton, like most other districts, will be seeing an increase in state aid. While there is an increase, the Brocton School District is being “cautiously optimistic” about budget figures, according to Superintendent John Hertlein.
Most of the aid coming in to the district is categorical aid – BOCES, transportation and building aid. Hertlein is still looking at the numbers proposed by Cuomo and he understands these numbers are just proposed and could change by state legislators.
“I don’t think it will really affect our current budget process,” Hertlein said. “I don’t think we’re looking at increasing the budget because of this and hopefully we can stay the course with keeping our taxes as low as possible.”
Hertlein said the governor did not increase foundation aid, keeping it the same as last year. The district saw an increase in transportation and building aid and did reduce the gap elimination for the district. According to Hertlein, there was some savings in the gap elimination formula.
“It’s just too early for me to even speculate as to what the real dollar means,” he said. “I think we’re going to be better than we were last year but I don’t think we’ll be that much better. I think we’ll be able to maintain the status quo.
“We’ll continue to stay with the 2 percent like the governor asked us to do. We are sympathetic with the taxpayers in this town. We’ll maintain the same programs next year and … think we’ll have the same amount of kids next year,” he continued.
When asked if the district will lengthen the school day or year as Cuomo proposed, Hertlein said the district cannot afford a longer school day for students but he is in support for a longer program for Pre-K students.
“I wouldn’t like a longer school day for Pre-K but I would like a longer school year. I would like those kids to go to school year-round,” he said.
Hertlein noted that having a longer school day would involve contract negotiations. He believes that applying for competitive grants, such as one offered for longer days, would take some time. Brocton does not employ a grant writer and Hertlein said he would be the one who would be writing the grants. Since the grants are competitive, bigger schools may have a better chance. Hertlein found it “interesting” that Cuomo would have grants for schools to increase their school day.
The Dunkirk School District will see an increase in state aid this upcoming school year. The district will have an increase of 2.68 percent in state aid. Even with the increase, according to Superintendent Gary Cerne it will not cover the increased cost of retirement the district is facing. The actual increase will be $623,038.
“I’m disappointed. We had hoped we would have gotten more (aid) than we did,” Cerne said. “How do we make up ground when we can’t cover the increase in that one line item?”
The district has already worked on the budget process for next year including athletics, building and grounds and transportation. These budgets have remained “flat,” as Cerne described them. The district was waiting on numbers for the benefits and payroll lines, but since state aid has been released the district will now focus on these budget items that make up over half of the district’s budget.
As for longer school days, the district will be looking into Cuomo’s proposal. Cerne said the district will look into all available opportunities for funding.
“We’re going to take advantage of any additional opportunity to get funding,” he said. “Personally I believe in a longer school day and a longer year, but certainly we’ll try to get our hands on any competitive money out there.”
With the amount of aid received, the district is going to have a difficult budget process again for the district. The amount of aid received makes it much tougher for the district.
“We’ve had several tough budget years in a row and we’re going to be in another difficult one. We had hoped to have more relief but the situation at the state level is just not coming,” Cerne said.
He noted the next couple of months for the budget process will be busy. Cerne said the board of education will look at everything in the budget before making any decisions about making any major decisions.
“It’s a tough time all the way around but we’ll find a way to make it happen,” he said.
The Forestville Central School District also received an increase just like other districts. The state aid has increased about 2.5 percent over last year, according to Superintendent Chuck Leichner. The aid is on point to what the district had expected.
“It’s in the area that we were hoping it would be. We’re cautiously optimistic at this point knowing what we see knowing that things could change,” he said.
While there is an increase in state aid Leichner said since there was a state aid freeze for several years, this increase isn’t really much. He said the district is “cautiously optimistic” to the numbers already but knows they could change from the legislature.
Leichner noted that the State Legislature has about $200 million to distribute to school districts but are unsure how that money will be divided.
“I’m not discouraged yet. Hopefully … we’ll get a little bit more,” he said. “Small incremental increases like this are almost getting us back to where we were in 2008. We’re several years behind.”
Leichner said the district would be interested in Cuomo’s proposals for longer school days and years but he would be interested in the funding aspect.
“The question remains, how will they be funding (the programs) and how long will that funding last,” he said.
Leichner recently sat in on a webinar hosted by the New York State School Boards Association which addressed opportunities and competitive grants for districts. He did note that grants can be hard to receive at a small district.
“It’s very difficult for small districts to compete for those grants for the requirements. Even for filing them (it can be tough),” he said.
He said the money Cuomo has promised for some grants will probably be used for a select number of districts to implement longer days and will be used as pilot programs. All opportunities will be investigated by Forestville to see if they would be a fit for the school.
Fredonia will see an increase of $44,000 for actual amount aid received in the 2013-14 school year. The BOCES budget has also increased so the district will not be out of the “grim fiscal outlook,” according to Superintendent Paul DiFonzo.
“The increase … is minimal and it won’t solve the problems regarding preserving programs that students need,” he said. “This budget is further proof for (Cuomo’s) lack of concern for small rural districts in Upstate New York.”
DiFonzo said Cuomo will say many schools have poor graduation rates as a generalization based on all state school districts. In reality, Fredonia has 80 to 90 percent graduation rates.
“Unlike New York City schools, Fredonia and other rural schools have high district graduation rates and great success on state testing,” DiFonzo said. “Governor Cuomo continues to lump public education into one pile and that’s not really fair … like we’re all the same (as if) Fredonia would operate the same way as a large city district like New York City would operate.”
DiFonzo did note that the district is trying to be fiscally responsible with its money. He noted two centralizations, a consolidation of all schools into one building, renting out space to other organizations in the Wheelock space and negotiation when it comes to contracts for teachers.
“We’re running out of options. The state guaranteed a fair and equal education for all students in our state. Unfortunately we are looking at our students losing programming and opportunities if our legislators do not make the necessary changes to our governor’s proposed budget. It will also allow us to not continue the programming that students need to compete for the jobs, military and college placement that is available,” he said.
When asked if the district will look to extend the school day, DiFonzo said Cuomo should place money reserved for grants awarded to districts who extend the school day into the general fund to be awarded to all districts. While Fredonia does offer universal Pre-K, a full-day program and longer school days may not be possible.
“It’s easy enough to say that those would be areas to improved education; but when you have to sit down with bargaining units and get an agreement that’s an another story,” he said.
DiFonzo said it’s up to legislators to make changes in order “to meet the needs of students in our district.” He and other personnel from Fredonia will be meeting with legislators to discuss their concerns regarding the proposed budget. He stated the district has lost more than $6 million in state and federal aid since 2009. Revenue also generated from the state has dropped from 55 percent 10 years ago to 41 percent currently.
“The state has shifted the burden of paying for public education onto the backs of our local taxpayers and I don’t think that’s fair,” he said.
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