Chautauqua Lake hosts forum

MAYVILLE – The Chautauqua Lake Central School District is not alone in facing its financial woes, according to the New York State School Boards’ Association.

On Tuesday, the district hosted a school program and finance forum – featuring guest speaker Timothy Kremer, executive director of NYSSBA. The forum provided insight to what some are calling the insufficient and unequal distribution of state aid to school districts throughout the state, and the effect it has had on regional and individual districts.

According to Ben Spitzer, Chautauqua Lake superintendent, the purpose of the forum was two-fold.

“(First), we wanted to give our local community a sense of the financial challenges that this school district continues to face over the long haul,” said Spitzer. “And secondly, to (have them) understand that those challenges are, in a great way, a function of state barriers and impediments. The reason I invited Tim to come here is (because) his perspective is something that contextualizes that this is not specific to our community.”

A main point of concern for CLCS is that, while 83 percent of Chautauqua County districts will receive an average of a 1 percent increase in state aid for 2013-14, Chautauqua Lake’s aid is projected to decrease according to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s budget proposal. Kremer, however, pointed out that even those districts receiving increases are still well below the funding that was promised.

According to Kremer, reductions in these districts’ Gap Elimination Adjustments are still decreases disguised as an increase.

“The (GEA) reduction for all of the districts in Chautauqua and Cattaraugus counties means that they’re going to get more money than they did last year,” he said. “Less will be taken away from last year than this year, so you’re getting an increase on the reduction from the GEA. In Chautauqua County, the GEA will be $4.5 million less than it was last year.”

Despite these reductions, Kremer said that, due to the GEA and a freezing of foundation aid after the recession in 2008, total state aid is now $5.5 billion below what was promised five years ago. In conclusion of his presentation, Kremer reiterated that the fault for this deficit lies primarily at the state level.

“This is complicated,” he said. “There (are) a lot of moving parts taking place; some of which your school board and administration can control, but a lot that they can’t. These cards have been dealt to them, and they just have to play with the hand that they’ve got. (Districts should) stay focused on the mission of getting kids a good, solid education. It’s not going to be easy, but (the NYSSBA) will do our part to convince the state legislature to help in any way that they can. And don’t be afraid of change. We’re going to have to be innovative, and we cannot continue to do things the same as always.”

Kremer gave a statewide perspective on the following items: the 2013-14 executive budget proposal for school aid, which covered fiscal stabilization funds, high tax aid, education reform grants, competitive performance grants and the NYSSBA budget testimony; pension smoothing; a tax cap lawsuit, in which New York State United Teachers questions the constitutionality of a 2 percent tax cap; the new Annual Professional Performance Review plans, which were required to be submitted by Jan. 17 in order for districts to receive state aid; and upcoming sequestration cuts, in which Kremer asserts that Chautauqua County districts stand to lose $700,000.

Spitzer offered specifics on how this information impacts CLCS. A packet was provided to attendees detailing the district’s budget process and current picture. The packet outlined information such as: the cost of funded and unfunded state mandates; potential ways for reductions in operating costs; a side-by-side aid comparison from 2012-13 and 2013-14; the decrease in current enrollment numbers compared with those of 1996-97; the amount of unappropriated funds available in the district’s fund balance debt service fund; and a tuition update.

According to Spitzer, the message he wants to convey to district residents is that the issues faced by Chautauqua Lake are statewide concerns.

“This is not a Chautauqua Lake problem, this is a statewide problem,” he said. “Every community has its own unique features, but every community is faced with declining revenues and increased expenditures. And, short of asking our state to provide its equitable share of support to every school district in the state, we are going to be faced with reducing programs for kids – and that’s regressive.”

He added: “I’m really impressed with the fact that we had as many people as we had here this evening. That just shows that this community cares about its school system. The real lift for us right now is to try to help the people that showed interest tonight to see a way that they can make a difference that they feel is palpable – rather than writing a letter and never getting a reaction. So tonight was a start, and I think that if we can get some of these folks to take me up on my invitation to get together on a more frequent basis, maybe we can have a singular voice that we can share with the state.”