Schools respond to Gov.'s cuts.

Watertown Daily Times
Schools bracing for hard journey
GOVERNOR’S CUTS: State aid reduction will create problems in long-term planning

Date: Thursday, December 18, 2008
Section: Jefferson
Edition: Both
Page: A1
By KELLY L. REYNOLDS
TIMES STAFF WRITER

North country school districts learned this week that expected state aid cuts will cost them 3 percent to 13 percent, a reduction that will hurt the districts’ long-term planning.Gov. David A. Paterson proposed a $698 million, or 3.3 percent, state aid reduction in his 2009-10 executive budget. The Deficit Reduction Assessment for each district is based on wealth, student need and tax effort.

In addition, the governor is extending the four-year Education Investment Plan that was developed in 2007-08, which would provide a $7 billion increase in school foundation aid and universal prekindergarten spending. Instead of spreading the funding over four years, the governor’s new plan would spread it over eight years.

Also in the governor’s plan is a package of state unfunded mandate program relief, the full extent of which is not yet known.

BREAKING IT DOWN

General Brown Central School District Superintendent Stephan J. Vigliotti Sr. said he empathizes with the governor and the legislators because “they certainly have inherited an extremely difficult task in rebuilding the state budget.”

“Spending has been irresponsible and now we have reached the end of the road,” he said. “We need to do something to safeguard the future of the state and the country so that our kids can be left in a better situation than we have right now.”

Mr. Vigliotti said his staff started assessing program cuts for board consideration.

“What’s the worst is that every district has fixed costs, which are going to go up no matter what you do, like utilities and wage increases determined in contracts,” Mr. Vigliotti said. “The way we’ve figured is that we’re going to have about a $680,000 increase in fixed increases. Add on the reduction in aid and what can we do? Realistically, we can reduce the work force and/or raise taxes. But we can’t ask people for money they don’t have.”

General Brown’s reduction in state aid is $677,714, but with projected increases in aid to things like transportation and BOCES, the district’s net loss is $206,400.

Each district received a specific amount of reductions, but Mr. Vigliotti said that sometimes the total reduction is not accurate. In General Brown’s case, the district will not use all of the increased aid to transportation and BOCES for which it is eligible, making the net loss higher than the state’s projection.

The Thousand Islands Central School District will receive $499,919 less aid than last year. The school district’s deficit reduction assessment was at $613,377.

Superintendent John E. Slattery said the district will have to make sacrifices to deal with the cuts.

“We just can’t afford to keep doing what we have been doing,” he said.

District officials say they do not yet know where they will cut back, but Mr. Slattery said that because the notice of this aid reduction came earlier than the midyear cuts the governor proposed in November, the district will have more time to work on its budget.

“We have better a sense of what we’re dealing with, what the parameters are,” he said. “The midyear cut of $380,000 was very scary. This will give us some time to plan.”

Mr. Slattery said it is too early to determine how the proposed cuts will affect district taxpayers, but a 1 percent increase in the tax rate generally would generate about $100,000 in revenue for the school.

He said the internal budget committee will meet more often and start meeting earlier. “We will have to look at everything to balance this budget,” he said.

Mr. Slattery said he also will be contacting area representatives to discuss ways to increase the state aid. “I am going to continue to advocate other ways the government can save money,” he said.

Watertown City School District Superintendent Terry N. Fralick said the district is “looking at cutting programs and putting more fund balance toward the reduction in state aid. We’ll be looking at field trips, conferences, anything that we can do without directly impacting the classroom.”

He said he is unclear about the district’s status with the Contract for Excellence, which is a state mandate for districts with schools on federal in-need-of-improvement lists. The program earmarks state aid for increasing student achievement. Under the governor’s proposal, those districts would lose contract aid at the deficit reduction percentage assigned to the district.

For instance, Watertown received $2.1 million earmarked this year under the Contract for Excellence, which would be reduced by about $71,610, or 3.41 percent, which is the percentage by which the district’s aid will be decreased.

If H.T. Wiley Intermediate School’s test scores from last year move the district off the state in-need-of-improvement list, under the governor’s proposal the district would be exempt from taking part in the final year of the three-year Contract for Excellence.

“It’s a very important factor,” Mr. Fralick said. “It would free up some money that we’ve been locked into for state-mandated programs.”

Kenneth J. McAuliffe, superintendent of Lowville Academy and Central School, said the district could lose $1.2 million in additional state aid that came to the district as a result of a lawsuit seeking additional funding for needy districts, which is distributed as part of the Contract for Excellence program.

“It’s going to present some serious challenges,” Mr. McAuliffe said. “Combine the $1.2 million that’s not coming with our deficit reduction and that’s about $1.6 million that will be cut.”

The district is receiving a net reduction amount of $406,338. Mr. McAuliffe said there are no specific cuts yet, but the board will be discussing the budget at its January meeting.

Cynthia M. Yager, assistant superintendent for business at the Massena Central School District, said the district most likely will use its healthy fund balance to offset the reduction.

Sackets Harbor Central School District Superintendent Frederick E. Hall said his district is looking at cost-avoidance measures.

“We’re going to scale back anything that does not have a direct impact on children,” Mr. Hall said. “We’re not purchasing anything but essential items. Now that we have some ballpark figures from the governor, it’s going to drive our course of action.”

He said the budget cuts, which total $205,005, have helped district staff remember its purpose.

“We’ve had to self-reflect,” Mr. Hall said. “We’re more mindful now of what our mission is and that’s to have the best programs we can have for kids without making long-range devastating cuts to programs. We’re going to do the best we can to make sure the best-quality education remains under these fiscal restraints.”

Times staff writer Jaegun Lee contributed to this report.

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