Schools in state aid limbo

Gwen Chamberlain
Presenting Gov. Cuomo's agenda and corresponding budget information last week in Penn Yan, NYS Environmental Facilities Corporation President Matt Driscoll told school officials, “Plan on what you got last year.”

Penn Yan and Dundee school officials, like others all over New York state, are formulating their spending plans for the 2015-16 school year and beyond. But this year’s task is more complicated than a typical year because of uncertainty about how much state aid may be available for individual districts.

Penn Yan Central School Superintendent Howard Dennis told the Penn Yan School Board last week that the district is “still flying pretty blind as far as revenue goes.”

In Dundee, Business Official Melissa Lawson gave a detailed explanation of the district’s future spending, services, population and the district’s overall fiscal picture Feb. 12. When it came time to provide detail about potential revenue, however, she cautioned the board of education that information about school aid amounts won’t likely be available until around the start of the state fiscal year, which is April 1, and which pushes the limit for the timeline districts follow to meet the legal deadlines for school budget public information and elections.

At issue: Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s plan to increase state aid to education by 4.8 percent statewide, but only if the state legislature agrees to his plan for public pre-kindergarten - 12 education.

According to Lawson, Cuomo’s budget proposes specific policy changes that might not fly with some state lawmakers:

• Pay full tuition to SUNY or CUNY if teachers are willing to teach in New York Schools for five years.

• Give teachers early training through a residency program

• Strengthen teacher evaluations

• Eliminate local exams for teacher evaluation, basing 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation on state exams; and 50 percent on independent observations.

• Implement state recommendations to stop local score inflation.

• Give $20,000 bonuses to highly effective teachers.

• Grant tenure only when teachers have five consecutive successful evaluations.

• Expand the number of master teachers

• Implement a teacher improvement plan to support ineffective teachers.

• Support for Pre-kindergarten education for 4-year-olds; Cuomo proposes to design programs for 3-year-olds.

• Proposed property tax credit program that gives relief to homeowners and renters “who need it most.” The proposed program provides targeted tax relief after the more broad-based tax relief of the tax freeze program, which provided tax relief in 2014 and 2015. Credits are provided for eligible taxpayers in tax cap compliant taxing jurisdictions.

• Address steps taken regarding failing schools in New York State and enhance/expand charter schools.

When NYS Environmental Facilities Corporation President Matt Driscoll met with some local officials in Penn Yan Feb. 13, he confirmed the governor’s plan to tie the overall increase to his conditions. At a minimum, the statewide state aid package could increase by 1.7 percent, but that’s not an indication of how much individual districts could receive.

“Plan on what you got last year,” Driscoll advised Penn Yan School Board Vice President Ryan Hallings, who asked for clarification.

That doesn’t leave the two local districts with much breathing room.

In Penn Yan, with flat state aid revenues, Assistant Superintendent for Business Cathy Milliman is estimating the local tax levy will increase by 4.24 percent due to expenses that will increase by $497,904 without reducing services.

At last week’s school board meeting, Milliman reviewed a spending plan that will retain all instructional costs and programs at a cost of $8.7 million, an increase of $12,019, and Special Education programs costing $3.9 million. Other sections of the budget have been reviewed at previous meetings.

In Dundee, if the district uses almost $2.5 million in various reserves, taxpayers will see a slight decrease in the local tax levy with a flat state aid package, but looking ahead, Lawson cautions the district could see double-digit tax levy increases as reserves dwindle.

The plan Lawson described last week included a net loss of one half teaching position, creation of two teacher assistant positions and abolition of two teacher aide positions, and the addition of a tech support staff position. It also includes spending for custodial and maintenance equipment, vehicles, electronic microscopes, classroom appliances, musical instruments and digital cameras; the addition of BOCES opportunities and a summer driver education program. The addition of a residential placement in special education services is also included in the Dundee budget.