Governor’s Budget Proposal Leave Schools Seeking More Financial Aid

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School district officials across Long Island likely released a collective groan of disappointment when Governor Andrew Cuomo rolled out his executive budget proposal in Albany late last month.

Despite petitions by administrators and legislators, the governor kept the Gap Elimination Adjustment in place as part of his $137 billion budget for 2014—which was released on January 22—meaning many schools will continue to receive less state aid than they did in 2008, the last year the GEA was not in place.

Originally introduced in 2009 by then-Governor David Paterson as the Deficit Reduction Assessment, the GEA was intended to help the state close a $10 billion deficit by reducing the amount of funding to schools. Local districts have lost millions of dollars in aid since the program’s implementation, which has been crippling for some districts when combined with the state-mandated tax cap.

The East Quogue and Hampton Bays school districts have been among the harder hit in recent years, and both were hopeful that the governor would pull the plug on the GEA, since Mr. Cuomo is projecting a $2 billion surplus in the state budget this year. The GEA remains, but the governor did set aside more cash for education as part of his budget, including a two-year $460 million investment into prekindergarten and after-school programs, $20 million toward the teacher excellence fund and $8 million for full-ride scholarships to SUNY and CUNY schools for the top 10 percent of high school graduates in the state.

Overall, Mr. Cuomo proposed a 3.9-percent increase in state aid for K-12 education, but the actual amount to be received varies greatly from district to district.

For example, East Quogue’s state funding would increase by 1.02 percent, from $1,009,884 in 2013-14 to $1,020,146 in 2014-15, according to analysis compiled by State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. Meanwhile, Hampton Bays would see an increase of 9.22 percent in total aid, from $4,206,001 last school year to $4,593,700 this school year.

But the amount of total state aid does not tell the whole story, Hampton Bays Superintendent of Schools Lars Clemensen said Tuesday.

A portion of the lump sum that the Hampton Bays School District receives goes toward satisfying the state’s commitment to help repay the cost of its new middle school, which was completed in 2008, reducing the actual amount to be received this year to about $4.45 million, which is a 6 percent jump, according to Mr. Clemensen. He also noted that, after subtracting the construction debt, Hampton Bays cleared only about $4.18 million in state aid last year.

Prior to the institution of the GEA, Hampton Bays was receiving approximately $5 million annually in state aid and, at that time, the district had 14 percent fewer children, according to Mr. Clemensen.

“Another way to say that is that the state is spending less per pupil in state aid than it did in 2008,” he said. “I am happy to see that we’re moving in the right direction, but my message to the governor, and my plea to Assemblyman Fred Thiele and Senator Kenneth LaValle, is to continue to push for the elimination of the GEA.”

East Quogue Superintendent Les Black said his Board of Education did not discuss the executive budget in detail, but that members are aware “that the governor’s proposal is very minimal” in terms of new state funding.

Mr. Black noted that no specific strategies have been discussed for dealing with the limited state aid—which worsens the school’s ongoing fiscal plight that was highlighted when the state comptroller reported last month that the district is in “moderate fiscal stress”—and there are few options left other than cutting more teachers and programs.

Last year the district attempted to pierce the state-mandated tax levy cap with a $23 million budget proposal that failed to meet the 60 percent approval threshold by seven votes. The Board of Education eventually passed a $22.4 million spending plan, but first had to cut a foreign language teacher, as well as special education teachers and teachers aides, to do so.

“We have no wiggle room,” Mr. Black said. “We used our wiggle room over the last three years.”

Mr. Thiele and Mr. LaValle both introduced legislation on Friday calling for an end to the GEA for districts like East Quogue that were labeled distressed in last month’s comptroller report in 2014, and all districts in 2015. If the legislation passes, East Quogue would receive an increase in state aid of $143,233 over the previous year for the next two years, while Hampton Bays would see an increase of $380,220 in 2014 then a jump of $760,441 in 2015. Neither lawmaker, however, currently has any co-sponsors for their legislation.

Other distressed districts on the South Fork would benefit from this legislation as well, including Eastport South Manor, which would receive increases of $2.02 million each of the next two years, and East Moriches, which would get an extra $500,000 in state aid both years. Both districts were identified as being in fiscal stress by the state comptroller.

“Ending the GEA is a priority for many of our school districts who have been negatively impacted by it for the past couple years,” Mr. Thiele said. “We feel the GEA affects Long Island schools disproportionately.”

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