Haggling in Albany complicates district’s budget
By Kevin E. Foley
Like most school districts around New York state, the Haldane Central School District is anxiously awaiting the outcome of budget deliberations in Albany between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Democratic-led Assembly and Republican-led Senate. The budget is expected to be completed by April 1.
Public school funding, the largest item in the state budget, is actually a small part of Haldane’s finances compared to what the district collects in property taxes. But within a tight budget the state contribution can make a difference in which courses and services are offered.
Wading into the swamp of school financing requires high boots.
In 2011, school districts had their taxing authority sharply constrained by Cuomo’s tax-cap provision, which puts a limit on what a district can assess property owners. Exceeding the limit, which is adjusted annually, can only be achieved by a referendum in which at least 60 percent of voters agree. This year the cap is expected to hover between zero and two percent for many districts, including Haldane, making state aid all the more important.
The Haldane district, which serves about 850 students in grades K-12 and employs 74 teachers, has an operating budget of about $23.2 million. It typically receives $2 million or less from the state because, while eligible, the district is considered fairly affluent. Some districts are considered so affluent they receive no state aid, while others receive more than half of their operating budgets from the state.
Districts that receive aid are hoping this will be the year the legislature agrees to end the Gap Elimination Adjustment (GEA). Since 2008 the GEA has reduced state contributions using a byzantine formula that attempts to apportion funds relative to the state revenue shortfall caused by the national fiscal crisis.
Many school administrators, including the Haldane School Board and District Superintendent Diana Bowers, believe the GEA is no longer necessary because the state’s finances have recovered from the financial crisis. Gov. Cuomo has proposed phasing out the GEA over two years; the Senate has already approved ending the GEA and the Assembly is expected to do the same.
Even if that happens, “eliminating GEA brings us to 2008 levels of state aid,” Bowers said in an interview with Philipstown.info. “People need to understand that inequities continue because the state has yet to give back our GEA [reduction]. The state is operating under a surplus but we are at a deficit.”
For Bowers, recovering lost state aid is necessary only to maintain the status quo. “We are talking about keeping what we presently have,” she said. Bowers said “inventive” financing is required for the district to maintain programs at 2008 levels. (The district’s current budget can be viewed at haldaneschool.org under the “Board of Education” tab.)
The Haldane district will receive $220,000 if the GEA goes away, instead of the $67,000 proposed in Cuomo’s budget. That would be in addition to the $1.5 million the district will receive in “foundation aid,” which is considered the actual aid the state apportions under its usual funding scheme. Many legislators, including Sandy Galef, who represents Philipstown in the Assembly, and the state’s education commissioner have called for an increase in foundation aid largely to assist poorer districts. But Haldane would also benefit if that were to happen.
As a demonstration of the thin margins a school district works within, Bowers has to contend with a mistake in the “expense-driven aid” formula for 2015-16 that resulted in a $125,000 shortfall. Expense aid is partial reimbursement by the state for certain services, in this case the district’s purchase of Board of Cooperative Education Services (BOCES) vocational and technical education programs for some students.
More than halfway through the current fiscal year, Bowers has announced a freeze on discretionary spending and a search for economies to avoid carrying the loss forward.