Wary Hudson awaits word on school aid

HUDSON–School District Superintendent Maria Suttmeier will present the administration’s proposed budget for the 2014-15 school year to the school board Monday, April 7. The proposal is the starting point for the annual districtwide budget referendum May 20.

The April 7 meeting will take place in the Junior High School library, with the budget presentation made as part of the board meeting.

The presentation will include the effect on district finances of last weekend’s adoption of a state budget, according to the office of District Business Executive Robert Yusko. Governor Cuomo signed the budget into law Monday, April 1.

Like Hudson, officials of other school districts around the state have been awaiting release of the final school aid figures for each district, especially because the final budget contained more money for education than the governor had originally proposed. But at a March 26 community conversation about the budget, Ms. Suttmeier and Mr. Yusko discussed some of the district’s needs for the upcoming school year and their concerns that state delivers less than it promises.

As of that conversation late last month, Mr. Yusko’s office estimated the district would need about $46.2 million to continue the programs and services it currently provides. The biggest expenses would be salaries (about $18 million) and employee benefits (about $13.5 million).

“We’re trying to keep our district as a district for everybody,” said Ms. Suttmeier. Offerings range from special needs services to athletics to college-credit courses.

Cutting programs, courses and services, as well as staff “will counteract the mission of the District to increase the graduation rate and Will affect the children’s chances of being prepared for and accepted into college,” said Mr. Yusko’s during the community conversation.

At an earlier session Mr. Yusko expressed frustration at having to face the same problem each year. “Some school districts have the luxury of reserves,” he said, adding, “We don’t.”

About $1.3 million of 2014-15 expenditures would pay for non-mandated offerings, like kindergarten and athletic programs. Additional non-mandated offerings include advanced placement (AP) courses and training to take standardized tests by computer. “The areas that aren’t mandated are what we need the most,” said Ms. Suttmeier at the March 26, conversation. But if the district feels compelled to select programs and services to cut, the non-mandated programs are where it must look first. The superintendent acknowledged the irony of the new push for prekindergarten when the state does not currently mandate full-day kindergarten. “I would go full steam for universal prekindergarten, but not at the expense of kindergarten,” said Ms. Suttmeier.

The district’s teaching staff has already shrunk in recent years from about 200 to 171. Ms. Suttmeier said she would now like to increase the number of teachers in the Intermediate School, where some classes already have 29 students. One area to consider cutting teachers and increasing class size would be physical education.

Another proposal for cost saving is to keep more special education students in district schools rather than send them to facilities run by Questar III, the BOCES (Board of Cooperative Educational Services) that serves school districts in this county. This would save the Hudson district tuition and transportation costs. “But if [these students] come back, we have to be ready for them,” said Ms. Suttmeier.

“This district seems to attract students with needs,” said the superintendent. She added that previous cuts have already strained services for special needs students, who make up 22% of the Hudson district’s student body.

One of the biggest obstacles facing the district’s yearly quest for adequate financial support, according to Mr. Yusko, is what the state calls the Gap Elimination Adjustment (GEA), a complex formula that reduces the total amount of proposed state aid by cutting the growth in school aid to make it consistent with growth in personal income statewide.

The GEA started in the 2009-10 school year, and since then has cost the District nearly $10.5 million in lost assistance from the state, an average of $2.1 million per year. Mr. Yusko said in his presentation that it was “disingenuous” for the governor to claim that the state budget overall would see a surplus for the 2016-17 fiscal year while enacting a Gap Elimination Adjustment that has “already taken billions of dollars back from New York State public Schools.”

Though portions of state aid are earmarked for specific purposes, such as technology and transportation, Ms. Suttmeier and Mr. Yusko expressed special concern at the conversations about the unrestricted category, called “Foundation” aid. For the current school year, which ends in June, Foundation aid amounted to $13 million, which is 64.2% of the total state aid. But GEA funds are held back out of the Foundation aid budget line. Without the GEA, the 2013-14 Foundation aid would have been $14.7 million. That difference has been made up by budget cuts and by district taxpayers paying a higher percentage of the annual budget.

Also on Mr. Yusko’s list of obstacles are:

•The state tax cap law, which limits property tax levy increases to around 2% per year unless a larger increase is approved by over 60% of voters

•State aid “stagnation”

•The cost of employee benefits.

The April 7 meeting of the board in the Junior High School library will start at 6 p.m. with a curriculum workshop that is expected to last about an hour. It will be followed by the board’s regular meeting, which will include presentation of the proposed budget.

 

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