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Schools headed toward ‘fiscal cliff’ too

Monday, December 17, 2012
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— If the federal government falls off the fiscal cliff Jan. 2, Capital Region schools will likely have to cut programs and eliminate teaching and support staff, according to a statewide advocacy group for school boards.

Local schools would lose nearly $8 million in federal aid if leaders in Washington cannot avert sizable tax increases and spending cuts mandated to take place early next year, said the New York State School Boards Association.

“The consequences of lawmakers not reaching agreement on the fiscal cliff are severe for students in New York schools, especially those in city school districts,” said association Executive Director Timothy G. Kremer.

Patrick Michel, district superintendent for the Hamilton-Fulton-Montgomery Board of Cooperative Educational Services, said the federal aid is tied to “people’s jobs and we are looking at a whole series of layoffs.”

Local impact

Here is a list of schools in the area and their projected federal aid losses, followed by the amount of extra state aid or the amount of increase in the tax levy they would need to recover the amount:

Albany: $690,000 1.0% or 0.6%

Gloversville: $179,000 0.6% or 1.3%

Johnstown: $89,000 0.6% or 1.2%

Mayfield: $35,000 0.5% or 0.5%

Northville: $21,000 0.7% or 0.4%

Oppenheim-Ephratah: $22,000 0.5% or 0.9%

Broadalbin-Perth: $63,000 0.6% or 0.5%

Amsterdam: $218,000 0.8% or 1%

Canajoharie: $47,000 0.5% or 0.7%

Fonda-Fultonville: $51,000 0.5%; 0.5%

Fort Plain: $60,000 0.6% or 1.1%

St. Johnsville: $34,000 0.7% or 1.4%

Burnt Hills: $91,000 0.6% or 0.3%

Shenendehowa: $217,000 0.7% or 0.2%

Saratoga Springs: $211,000 1% or 0.3%

Duanesburg: $27,000 0.5% or 0.4%

Ballston Spa: $126,000 0.7% or 0.3%

Scotia-Glenville: $84,000 0.6% or 0.3%

Niskayuna: $81,000 0.7% or 0.2%

Schalmont: $54,000 0.6% or 0.2%

Mohonasen: $86,000 0.6% or 0.4%

Schenectady: $667,292 0.8% or 1.3%

Gilboa-Conesville: $17,000 0.6% or 0.3%

Jefferson: $14,000 0.6% or 0.6%

Middleburgh: $50,000 0.6% or 0.6%

Cobleskill-Richmondville: $75,000 0.5% or 0.5%

Schoharie: $32,000 0.4% or 0.4%

Sharon Springs: $17,000 0.5% or 0.7%

Schools use the federal aid to support programs for special education students and economically disadvantaged students, for math and science programs and for teacher quality grants. Saratoga Springs City Schools Superintendent Michael Piccirillo said his district would “have to shift salaries we paid through the federal grants to our general fund budget. That is additional money we will have to come up with to support those positions, or we will have to cut positions as we go through our budget process.”

Saratoga’s schools would lose $211,000, one of the largest amounts in the region, in federal aid under the proposed scenario.

Piccirillo said some of the grant money is used for after-school and summer-school programming. “We would have to reduce some of these programs, which are typically for students with high needs,” he said. He also said the district cannot stop providing special education services, which are covered by the federal money, and that the district would have to find ways to fund the programs from other revenue sources, all without jeopardizing nonmandated programming that serves others students in the district.

L. Oliver Robinson, superintendent of the Shenendehowa Central School District, said “the impact of the federal ‘fiscal cliff’ makes an already complicated budget planning process extremely difficult. Programs and services to our most academically needy students will be at risk.”

He said the “fiscal intervention of the federal government [through the federal stimulus aid] for the past two years has been tremendously beneficial, helping to fill financial gaps created by state aid shortfalls and reductions. Clearly, the possibility of such intervention is unlikely and the prospect of seeing as much as a 10 percent reduction in existing federal dollars is disturbing.”

Lynn Macan, superintendent of the Cobleskill-Richmondville Central School District, said her district cannot absorb the proposed loss of $75,000 in federal aid and that it would likely reduce staff to compensate. “What $75,000 means in my school district, if you look at an average teacher salary of $50,000, is 11⁄2 teachers,” she said.

“We fund reading and math specialists and special education with the federal grant money. The loss of those teachers means service changes to students with the highest needs in the district,” Macan said.

School districts in the region cannot count on the state covering the gap, Michel said. “State aid is slim to none. They guaranteed a 4 percent increase, but districts are dealing with double-digit increases in costs,” he said. The costs are related to “doing business,” and include salary increases and increases in employee pensions and health care coverage, officials said.

School districts are also limited in what they can raise in revenues by the mandated property tax cap. Last budget cycle, 48 school districts tried to exceed the cap through public votes that required 60 percent majorities. Only a handful succeed, said Paul Heiser of the school boards association.

The federal aid cuts would take effect Oct. 2, giving school districts time to factor the financial losses into their 2013-2014 budgets, Heiser said. “What schools really desire is some predictability. They want to budget with certainty, they want to know what money they are going to get from various sources,” he said. School districts generally put their budgets out for public votes in May.

 
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