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State still silent on Schenectady school aid

District facing deadline for budget preparation

Tuesday, April 9, 2013
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Buses park outside the Fine Arts Wing at Schenectady High School after school on April 9.
Photographer: Marc Schultz
Buses park outside the Fine Arts Wing at Schenectady High School after school on April 9.

— Another month has gone by without a word from the state Education Department regarding the $3.8 million that it was expected to return to Schenectady a year ago.

But at this point, everyone is used to silence.

The Education Department has ignored letters from state representatives, phone calls from Schenectady City School District leaders and interview requests.

No one from the department will even explain why it’s taking so long.

Superintendent Laurence Spring said he has no idea what else he could do to try to get answers from the department.

“It’s like looking at the outside of a black box and asking ourselves, ‘How can we make the stuff inside work better?’ I don’t know,” he said.

School board President Cathy Lewis said she, too, is stumped.

“It’s awfully hard to figure out,” she said, noting that department officials won’t even say who is in charge of the issue. That makes it hard to figure out whom to call.

“That may be why they don’t tell us,” she added. “Because they don’t want to be lobbied.”

She just wants to know whether it’s worth it to keep writing letters and making unreturned phone calls.

“We’ve been waiting. If it’s a totally dead issue, let us know,” she said. “I wouldn’t say I’ve given up on it, but … ”

Assemblyman Phil Steck, D-Colonie, has also tried writing letters. Now he’s asked for a conference call with the education commissioner.

“I think we’re going to have to pursue it a little differently,” he said. “We’ve sent in letters, but I think letters are not as effective as speaking to the person in question.”

Sen. Hugh Farley, R-Niskayuna, has sent in four letters. He only got a response to one — after he complained that he was being ignored. That letter promised a decision by the end of February. For months, there was no follow-up to explain why that deadline was missed.

Recently, department spokeswoman Antonia Valentine offered this explanation: “The review has taken longer than anticipated, but it is expected to be resolved.”

She would not elaborate and declined repeated requests for an interview, but Farley’s spokesman said he believes the department is close to making a decision — possibly by the end of the week.

“This time it sounds like they’re really wrapping things up,” said Peter Edman. “Of course, last time they said it would be two weeks, and that was in February. The delay has been very frustrating.”

Farley's office sent another letter on March 28 to the state Education Department. A copy of that letter is available on the Back to School blog.

The issue has been brewing for three years, ever since the Education Department took $3.8 million in aid from the school district. A decade ago, the school district omitted a sentence in a legal ad in which it promised to avoid discrimination in its evaluation of bus bidders. Five years later, an official at the Education Department read the original legal ad and discovered the mistake. The district lost all five years of transportation aid for the error.

The district appealed the decision, arguing that the error was unintentional and insignificant. No one has alleged that the district chose its bidders in a discriminatory way.

“It didn’t have any consequences, because we observed all the practices, we just didn’t print it,” Lewis argued. “It seems like a very high penalty to pay.”

Steck agreed. “I think it’s appalling. The ultimate triumph of form over substance,” he said.

Farley repeatedly sponsored legislation to get the money returned, but it was vetoed by governors David Paterson and Andrew Cuomo.

Finally, a year ago, Farley sponsored an amendment to a budget bill to get Schenectady’s money back. That bill passed.

It gave the Education Department the authority to give back aid to school districts if it was taken from them for minor, technical errors. Farley publicly said it was specifically written so that Schenectady could get back its transportation aid.

But the department never acted.

Within the next two weeks, the school district must set its budget. Once the public votes on the spending plan, the district cannot legally spend more than the amount approved — even if it gets a windfall.

That means that the department must make a decision this month, or the district can’t use the money to reduce cuts in next year’s budget, the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Spring said he would use the money to reduce the cuts to the arts. That’s the “top of the list.”

But the district won’t be able to spend most of the $3.8 million, even if it got the money, he added. “It’s not as much money as we think it is.”

The district must use $3.2 million to balance last year’s loss of the city’s tax payments. The city delayed payment until this year. To avoid a last-minute financial crisis the district put the money on its books anyway, as if it received it. The district’s auditors were highly critical of the move.

“A chunk [of the transportation aid] would get us back to real-time accounting,” Spring said. “It would get us back to reality.”

That would leave the district only about $600,000 to spend on the 2013-2014 budget. But that would be enough to restore most of the arts cuts, Spring said.

“It would be pretty significant,” he said. “It wouldn’t solve all our issues.”

The arts cuts would mainly affect children in kindergarten through second grade. They might not get music classes, leaving their classroom teacher to replace that instruction with some singing or rhythm games.

Other students might get 30 minutes of music, down from 40 minutes, and the number of librarians in the district would be reduced.

Spring wants to take back those cuts if he can.

“I’m not hanging my hat on this aid. I’m not banking on it,” he said. “But I’m hoping to alleviate some of the cuts.”

 
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