By DAVE GYMBURCH Staff writer
State aid for education in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposed new budget drew mixed reactions today from local officials at school and legislative levels.
Although Cuomo called for basic aid increases, some superintendents said it still would not be enough to cover districts’ needs as they prepare for upcoming 2012-13 district budgets and difficult decisions on where to spend or cut. Details about how aid was distributed still must be reviewed, said state Sen. Joseph A. Griffo, R-47, Rome.
In addition, officials noted Cuomo’s efforts to resolve the impasse over a new teacher evaluation plan, but they said his plan to link a solution to whether specific districts receive aid increases could raise many uncertainties.
For the Rome district, while the slight aid hike reflects a "better starting point than where we were at last year" when aid was cut, it is "far below our anticipated increases in expenditures" in "categories difficult to control," said Superintendent Jeffrey P. Simons. Among such categories are contributions to pension plans, plus contractual salaries and benefits.
Separately, Simons said "encouraging news" is that Cuomo did not recommend changes to building aid calculations, according to "information we’ve received so far" including an analysis by the state School Boards Association. It means the current 97.8 percent building aid rate likely "would remain," he said, and would be in effect for the upcoming $25.4 million Strough Middle School repair project that district voters approved last month; a recent state Board of Regents proposal had called for cutting that aid rate to 87.8 percent, which could require the Strough project to be scaled back.
Among other local districts, Remsen still is reviewing its proposed aid allotments, but Superintendent Joanne Shelmidine said she believes that "schools dependent on state aid...did not get anywhere near what they need." She remarked that "state aid-dependent, rural districts...will still be struggling," adding that such districts likely will face "another tough year...on top of several tough years."
In a related matter, the Remsen Board of Education will meet jointly with the Adirondack Board of Education to discuss potential shared services Thursday at 7 p.m. at the Remsen High School media center. Possible savings if agreed to could begin as soon as the upcoming 2012-13 school year, said Shelmidine, but likely would be geared for 2013-14 or beyond.
The Remsen district requested the joint session after being asked last summer by the Holland Patent district to explore sharing services, said Shelmidine; the discussions with Holland Patent are "still early in the process," she commented. She foresees potential savings in "behind-the-scenes" functions that could include such categories as payroll or human resources, for example. Adirondack Superintendent David Hubman said there could be a "wide variety" of areas explored. The initiative would be "really an extension" of the way resources are pooled via BOCES agencies, said Shelmidine, including categories where "it may not make sense to go through BOCES."
As for Cuomo’s 2012-13 budget proposal, Griffo said he will "delve into the details" of the aid distribution among districts. Griffo cited a need to "ensure fairness in the system," including a "sensitivity to high-needs districts" that rely heavily on aid.
Regarding the teacher evaluation issues, Griffo said he is "always concerned" when "policy issues" become part of the budget process, which could "prolong the budget." But he also said he understood Cuomo’s need to produce an agreement on a new evaluation system, due to possible loss of $700 million in federal Race to the Top funding for New York if it is not ironed out.
However, Simons said of Cuomo that "the way he’s going about it" for teacher evaluations puts school districts in a lot of "uncertainty" including "whether we’re actually going to receive increases" in aid. It creates a "big if," he observed. The Rome district will "wait to see what changes are made" involving the new evaluation system, including whether the state Education Department and state teachers union can settle their differences, he added.
Overall, Simons said, Cuomo’s budget proposal provided "very little mention of reducing mandates" by the state, such as local district contributions to pension systems. He remarked, "what we really need is mandate relief," and "I didn’t hear enough to feel encouraged that we’ll see some relief in time for next year’s budget."