Educators gather for GEA rally

ELLICOTTVILLE – Students’ futures in New York state are determined by the ZIP code in which they reside. That was the message of an expert and proponent of the abolition of the Gap Elimination Adjustment that has been part of school budgeting for the past five years.

Dr. Richard G. Timbs, the executive director of the Statewide School Finance Consortium, presented the issues facing districts throughout the state recently, in the Ellicottville Central School Gymnasium. More than 500 people, representing 35 school districts throughout Cattaraugus, Chautauqua and Erie counties, were on hand to get the numbers on how this deficit elimination plan has created problems in some districts, and which ones have been hit the hardest.

Since the 2008-09 school year, when New York state officials decided that an effort to close the deficit in the state budget would be borne on the backs of school districts, the 35 schools in attendance have lost about $170 million.

When the aid cuts started, some federal funds were filtered into the equation to help mitigate the shortfall, Timbs said. As time has gone on, that federal source has dried up, leaving a hole that has cumulatively grown by the millions. The first couple years, the districts were able to offset the cost through the use of reserve funds. Those funds are disappearing as well.

“This leaves you with three choices,” Timbs said. “You can cut programs, cut staff or use more fund balance. We are starting to run out of all three.”

Jamestown Superintendent Tim Mains, a panelist who discussed the impacts of the cuts, said he was shocked to find out that, since the start of the adjustment, his district has had to cut 100 positions. Those positions include teachers, staff and administration. The cuts have reached across the spectrum.

“When you cut that number of positions, that means all of the sudden you have art teachers, music teachers and librarians who are no longer able to provide full-time service at the elementary schools,” he said. “They have to travel between schools in order to have some semblance of the program.”

Programs have been slashed in districts as well, according to Cattaraugus-Allegany BOCES Superintendent Lynda Quick.

“We have had to tighten out belts,” she said.

Some districts, such as the Belfast and Friendship districts, have simply run out of areas that can be cut. The two districts already share a superintendent, Judy May. She said the outlook for her districts boils down to one word – “bleak.” She has already nearly used up her fund balance to be able to delay more teaching and program cuts, but that source is only going to last about a year-and-a-half, she said.

The cuts have cut into the bone, according to the charts presented by Timbs. He continued to explain that the wealthier districts in other parts of the state are slated to receive a higher percentage of aid than those that are classified as high-needs districts. Those wealthier districts are able to spend more per student, tap into a larger curriculum and offer less of a taxpayer input, making the wealthier districts better suited to produce students who are enticing for college admissions.

Telling the story of a rural school salutatorian in the state, Timbs said he and his organization were shocked at the lack of college admissions choices she had.

“She was not accepted to (a SUNY school) because her application was thin,” Timbs said. “We contacted the admissions office at the school and asked why she was denied. After all, she was the salutatorian. We were told that the kids from the wealthier districts had a better ability and offering. Their transcripts were thicker. ZIP code does matter, apparently.”

Timbs said, as the budget is today, before the haggling before passage, the school districts of New York stand to lose another $1.638 billion, despite a declared surplus of $2 billion.

“The truth of it is, if there is no longer a gap, then eliminate the Gap Elimination Adjustment,” he said, continuing that the restoration of the funding has started, but it is not coming fast enough to be of any good to the school districts.

“Aren’t your kids just as important as any other kid in the state?” Timbs asked. “Do you want your kids’ future determined by ZIP code?”

Timbs summed up his talk by telling people to contact their elected officials, mostly via email and Twitter, to call for the end of the Gap Elimination Adjustment.