It was a call for action from eight school districts in Ulster County. Their school superintendents, board members and administrators met at a forum in New Paltz last Friday, March 6. Each took the podium in turn at the Ulster BOCES conference center to discuss the impacts of the loss of state aid on their students and communities. They were “preaching to the choir” in the broadest sense, in that the audience was composed primarily of other school officials, educators and their supporters. The broader purpose of the gathering was to enlist the support of Ulster County taxpayers, on whom they claim the burden for funding the schools is being increasingly shifted.
Countywide, 65 cents of every dollar spent on education is raised by local taxes, said Ulster BOCES district superintendent Charles Khoury. State aid covers the remaining 35 cents. Before the cuts to school funding that began with the 2009-2010 school year, the gap between taxpayer contribution to the schools and state aid was just 16.9 percent rather than the nearly 30 percent it is now. It’s the local taxpayers who are making up the difference, Khoury said.
The governor has tied state aid to structural changes and other kinds of reform of the public schools. Schooling in New York State is the most expensive in the nation, he has pointed out.
With the governor’s budget due April 1, school officials at Ellenville, Highland, Kingston, New Paltz, Onteora, Rondout Valley, Saugerties and Wallkill districts are actively petitioning Andrew Cuomo to restore school funding to former levels. Each of the districts is requesting support from its community in the battle. Each has a link on its website to a petition asking the governor to put a stop to the Gap Elimination Adjustment (GEA) used in the process of determining state aid for public education.
The GEA was enacted six years ago by Albany lawmakers to eliminate a $10-billion state budget deficit. And it has worked. But in diverting funds from public education to bail out the state, the districts claim, the GEA has cost them $8.5 billion in state aid. Now that the state budget deficit no longer exists, say school officials, why is the GEA still in place?
Locally, the eight school districts primarily in Ulster County says the enactment of the GEA has meant a loss of $116 million in aid. This has resulted in “a story of missed opportunities,” said Khoury, through the impact of program cuts, larger class sizes and reduced educational and support staffing.
New Paltz’s school district was represented at the forum by Richard Linden, assistant superintendent for business, and Ruth Quinn, board vice president. “Because of the Gap Elimination Adjustment,” Quinn said, “New Paltz is being slowly starved of resources.” She blamed the district’s reduction of staff by 46 positions in the past five years on the loss of $9.1 million in state aid funding. “It’s meant that we’ve had to defer maintenance on our buildings, resulting in emergency repairs,” said Quinn. “It’s meant that we’ve had to cut our facilities staff to the bare minimum, and it’s beginning to show. And we no longer have a front desk person who greets people and looks at IDs.”
But while the statistics involve millions of dollars lost, said Quinn, the continuing impact of the GEA has also had an impact on the district’s relationship with the community. “We’re running out of places for significant reductions and we’ve had to use our fund balance,” she said. “This has caused our district to be designated as being in moderate fiscal stress by the [state] comptroller, and this is incredibly upsetting when you consider that we’re doing exactly what Cuomo has asked us to do: use the fund balance. And as a result of following this advice, our community is questioning our fiscal decisions.”
In her 18 years working in her district, Ellenville superintendent Lisa Wiles said, she’s never before seen a political climate like the one that exists today. “School communities all over are being vilified, blamed and punished. It’s really unconscionable and it’s not right,” she said.
Referring to reports from the governor saying there have been increases in financial aid in recent years, Wiles responded, “Let’s take the spin out. If you look at the numbers for 2013-2014, it looks like an increase [compared to the years preceding], but [in comparison to pre-GEA levels], it’s not an increase; you can say it’s an increase from the decrease. And this isn’t unique to Ellenville; it’s true for every school district in the state.”
Several of the speakers at the forum decried a perceived politicization of education in New York. “This clearly is a pattern of wanting to get rid of public education,” said Wallkill schools superintendent Kevin Castle. “When you are taking away the monies that we are dependent on to provide services to our students, what will happen is that you have to shut down.”
It was no different than a homeowner, he argued, who goes into foreclosure if they lose their income and can no longer afford their mortgage. “Quite frankly, since all this began six years ago, I’ve believed that this is the goal of our state,” Castle said, “to decrease the amount of public schools and add the charter schools.” The Wallkill district has lost 38 staff positions and $16.5 million in state aid since 2009-2010.
The Highland district has lost 18 positions and $8.4 million in state funding since 2010. It too has had to dip into its fund balance to stabilize the budget. The Highland district currently receives 21 percent less state aid than it did in the 2009-2010 school year, said superintendent Deborah Haab.
“That is huge,” said Haab. “Our students and our taxpayers need those state aid dollars restored. And the shift of the cost to the Highland community, to the Ulster County community as a whole, is unacceptable.” With the governor’s budget due on April 1, she urged, “The time for us to act is now. We must not continue to let our children be a pawn in Albany politics. There’s no financial reason to continue the GEA; it’s a political reason, and our children’s education should never be politicized.”
Saugerties superintendent Seth Turner said his district lost 50 positions along with $13.4 million in state aid. And like other districts, it’s had to resort to using its fund balance, “which meant,” he continued, that “whenever we had bills, we had to take out a tax anticipation note or a revenue anticipation note, which meant in turn that the banks were making the money off of us not having the money.” Not only do the charter schools benefit from the current situation, said Turner, but the financiers benefit as well.
Before he became superintendent in 2009, Turner said, local taxpayers contributed 46 percent of district revenue. Currently, the local tax burden is 63.5 percent. “And keep in mind,” he said, “that’s with a tax cap in place for three years …. It’s not that spending has gone through the roof, it simply demonstrates the reductions in state aid.”
Turner said it was important for leaders to take aggressive action: “It’s unacceptable to sit back and do nothing.” He praised the coming together of the group assembled at the forum, and defended the decision of districts to offer a link on their websites to petitions asking Albany for education finance reform.
“We’re finally working together to draw attention to something,” said Turner. “But now I’m going to say something that will bother a lot of you …. Yesterday my board president, George Heidcamp was contacted by an editor of Ulster Publishing who tipped him off that he’s investigating whether or not our district, just like your districts, has the legal right to use our website to promote political action. And what my board president said to me, was, ‘If this is a mistake that I’ve made on behalf of the children, if this is a mistake that I’ve made on behalf of the taxpayers, then I’ll make that mistake over and over and over again.’”