Like their colleagues across New York, Saugerties school officials listened intently to governor Andrew Cuomo’s State of the State last week, hoping to hear good news in the proposed 2016-17 budget and other educational initiatives. In Saugerties, there was a sense of tempered optimism.
“It was far more positive than prior-year presentations, both in his initiatives and on the financial side of it,” said superintendent Seth Turner. “It’s a step in the right direction.”
Cuomo’s proposed budget, which would see Saugerties’ total state aid come in at $21,694,119, is still a long way away from being adopted. Generally, the legislature has in the past increased the total pot of money for public schools.
But at least school districts know what they’re looking at, said Turner. Last year, the governor withheld releasing state aid runs until the end of March in an effort to get state legislators to approve a controversial education reform program. The move forced school districts like Saugerties to craft their budgets without knowing what their aid increase might look like, if they received an increase at all. In coming up with their budget proposals for the 2016-17 academic year, school districts will have something a bit more tangible to work with.
“We were not given any information about our district until late March [last year], and that made planning extremely difficult,” Turner said. “Last year we were not given a whole dollar amount at all, so it was a complete guessing game. As we’re in the tax cap era, you need to know those figures. There’s no way to plan a budget otherwise. So at least we have a starting point.”
In the governor’s proposed budget, Saugerties’ aid package without building aid would come in at $19,317,258, an increase of 1.62 percent over 2015-16. Those figures include $14,534,484 in basic aid, $1,341,598 in Boces aid, $2,139,416 in transportation funds, and a number of other items. These figures represent a building block for school officials to create a spending plan. The state-mandated property tax-hike cap must also be considered.
Cuomo’s budget proposal of nearly $2 million in Smart Schools NY funding gives Saugerties an opportunity to finance educational technology to keep the district competitive.
While they saw positive signs in the governor’s proposed budget, Turner and district business administrator Lissa Jilek expressed concern about a two-year phaseout of the Gap Elimination Adjustment (GEA), instituted in 2010-11 by Cuomo to help with a budget deficit by decreasing state aid to school districts. Last year, school districts began to see some of that funding reappear, and Cuomo’s budget proposal includes an increase of around $2.1 billion in education aid statewide, in part to make up for the $443 million in aid lost under the GEA. The state senate last week voted 53-9 to support the GEA’s immediate elimination.
“I would appreciate it if they just got rid of it in its entirety,” said Turner. “The funding for public school systems in New York State for the last five years has not been at the level that it should have been. Districts have been starved, and at the same time it placed an extremely heavy burden on local taxpayers …. It’s nice that we’re moving in a direction where it’s slowly being shifted back to New York State to fund the costs, but it’s as if we’ve been starved for six or seven years and now we’re supposed to be glad that we’re getting some food.”
Jilek agreed. “As far as state aid is concerned, well, there’s a lot to be desired,” she said. “It would be wonderful if foundation [basic] aid was actually tweaked and run to where it should be. And it was disappointing to hear they’re still going to take away money as far as GEA. I was hoping that it would be resolved this year. The state is operating with a significant surplus.”
Turner liked the speech
Turner said he was encouraged by other aspects of Cuomo’s address, including a renewed focus on school safety and security. The governor recommended that school districts have a chief school emergency coordinator, and favored shifting away from twelve fire drills during a school year to eight fire drills and four other emergency-oriented drills.
“Those are good things,” Turner said. “Those are things we are already doing and working on.”
The superintendent added that he was happy not to hear other things in the governor’s speech. “I didn’t hear rhetoric about really tinkering with the education system too much,” Turner said. “We’ve heard that in the past, both related to Common Core curricular standards and evaluation for teachers and things like that. So it’s what wasn’t said that’s just as important as what was said.
“Whether it comes from the governor, the legislature or the Board of Regents, there has been for those of us in the field concern as to who was driving the bus …. Traditionally, it should be the Board of Regents, as per the New York State Constitution, and the commissioner of education driving education policy. But it seems as though policies were coming from so many different avenues, some good and some bad, and it was always difficult to sort of figure out who was really in charge.”
Grad rates are up
With the state-aid numbers likely if anything to improve for Saugerties, there’s optimism that the district will be able to continue a trend seen in recently released figures, which saw improvements in the four-year high-school graduation rate in every student group. Overall, the graduation rate rose to 80 percent in the 2014-15 school year, up from 77 percent one year earlier. The greatest gains were seen in economically disadvantaged students (73 percent, up from 61 percent) and students with disabilities (51 percent, up from 42 percent).
Female students in the district still outpace male students overall, with the former coming in at 86 percent and the latter 75 percent. Both groups saw an increase over the previous year from 82 percent and 73 percent respectively.
“You’re never going to be satisfied in this profession, because no matter how good we do, we want to do better,” Turner said. “We want to do better with graduation rates, we want to do better with our student performance. That being said, it’s because of the hard work of our teachers, our administrators and our staff and their commitment to the children in our community that has allowed for us to continue improving our quality of instruction.”