School districts in Central New York and beyond are in trouble, and it’s time we do something about it.
That’s the message behind a pair of forums to be held Feb. 4 and 5 in Auburn and North Syracuse by the Central New York School Boards Association (CNY SBA) in conjunction with the Onondaga-Cortland-Madison, Cayuga-Onondaga, Tompkins-Seneca-Tioga and Oswego County BOCES. The forums, which will take place at Auburn West Middle School and North Syracuse Junior High School, respectively, will focus on the major factors causing those financial issues and how school administrators, teachers and community members can make a difference.
“A lot of districts are in real trouble, if not of going into fiscal insolvency, then of going into programmatic insolvency,” said CNY SBA Executive Director Charles Borgognoni. “Schools won’t have the funds to fulfill their mission of educating children.”
Borgognoni cited the recent report issued by New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli on schools in fiscal distress statewide, which revealed that Central New York had the highest percentage of fiscally stressed schools in the state (29.9 percent).
Using financial indicators that include year-end fund balance, cash position and patterns of operating deficits, the system creates an overall fiscal stress score which classifies whether a district is in “significant fiscal stress,” in “moderate fiscal stress,” as “susceptible to fiscal stress,” or “no designation.” The comptroller’s office analyzed separate environmental indicators to help provide insight into the health of the local economy and other challenges that might affect a school district’s finances. These include such measures as student enrollment, property value, budget vote results and poverty. The scores are based on financial information submitted as part of each district’s ST-3 report, which is filed with the State Education Department as of Dec. 13, 2013. The higher the score, the more stressed the district is.
Several local schools were classified as being in “susceptible” or “moderate” fiscal distress, including the Cazenovia (31.7 percent), North Syracuse (35.0 percent) and Skaneateles (50.0) districts.
School districts found to be in fiscal stress share a number of common characteristics. Most are operating with low fund balance, operating deficits and limited cash on hand. These districts were also found to have a much higher likelihood of using short-term borrowing to bridge gaps in cash flow. They also tended to experience declining property values, high poverty rates and low school budget support.
And what has led to that fiscal distress? According to the CNY SBA, much of that burden can be placed on the inequitable aid policies laid out by the state. That’s why they’re helping to host the forums next week: to raise awareness about the policies and to advocate for their repeal, particularly that of the harmful gap elimination adjustment.
“What we’re hoping to do with these forums is to point out the key issues and our key asks of the state legislature this year,” Borgognoni said. “Obviously, public education financing is a very complicated process. We’re trying to pick out two key issues and convey them in a very easy-to-understand manner that will arm folks to be able to interact with their legislators. At all the forums, we’re going to focus on the Gap Elimination Adjustment and its complete repeal this year.”
The Gap Elimination Adjustment (GEA) was instituted by the Cuomo administration in the 2009-10 school year to help the state fill its revenue shortfall. Essentially, the state allocates a certain amount of aid to schools each year, then takes away a portion of that aid through the GEA. If the amount of state aid allocated to schools exceeds the projected growth in the state’s personal income, regardless of the need projected by schools, the GEA is increased to contain overall growth within legislated limits. If state aid increases are less than that limit or of legislators choose to exceed the state aid cap, the GEA can be decreased. However, the GEA generally remains at the same levels year to year.
Borgognoni said the GEA has had a devastating effect on the schools in Central New York.
“Over the four years that the GEA has been in effect, the districts in the Onondaga-Cortland-Madison BOCES have had almost $245 million deducted from their state aid as a result of the gap elimination adjustment,” he said. “If it’s not repealed, another $47 million will be deducted from the 26 or 27 school districts in those three counties.”
Borgognoni cited North Syracuse as an example, as it’s been particularly hard hit by the GEA and the tough economic times of the last several years.
“Over the four years of the GEA, North Syracuse has had nearly $39 million of the state aid it was legally allowed,” Borgognoni said. “You have to ask, what could that district have done if that money was not taken off its state aid? It probably would not have laid off as much staff. It probably wouldn’t have cut as many programs. It probably wouldn’t have had to raise taxes as much.”
A repeal of the GEA would make a tremendous difference in the aid packages of districts across the state, Borgognoni said.
“If the gap elimination adjustment goes away, for North Syracuse alone, they’ll get nearly $7 million in their total aid package not deducted,” he said. “What could that district do with that $7 million back in their allocation this year?”
Borgognoni said he equated it to the deductions taken out of a paycheck.
“On Friday, when you get your paystub, the first thing you look at is your deductions,” he said. “How much is taken out of my pay? In North Syracuse’s case, when they get that state aid check, if the GEA hasn’t gone away, they’ll have $7 million taken out of that check from the state. That’s a very easy concept for folks to understand. It’s one of the dirty little secrets of state public education financing for the last four years.”
The elimination of the GEA is a critical step in reforming public education funding in New York state.
“If we can accomplish that one action this year, it would be a big help for all of the districts we represent,” Borgognoni said. “That paves the way for further reforms, particularly with the foundation aid formula for the majority of the state aid to schools. We see it as a two-step process. Get rid of the deductions, then look at fixing the system.”
The goal of the forums is to break down these complicated state aid formulas and policies so that people can understand them, and then to help them become advocates for their schools.
“The way we describe it, what we’re hoping to do is educate and motivate,” Borgognoni said. “We want to educate the people in the community about some of the key issues our schools are facing this year, and our hope is that will motivate them to take some action, whether it’s a letter, a tweet, an email, a visit with their legislator or whatnot, to let them know what’s happening in our districts.”
Borgognoni said it’s imperative that members of the community attend the forums and get involved in advocating for their schools.
“The key to these events is to attract folks from the general community and get them involved, get the moms and tads and the folks that run businesses and the booster club members, anybody who’s a member of the community who cares about the schools to come out,” he said. “Their voices have the most impact. The leaders in Albany look at the school board member, the superintendents, the educators and say we have a vested interest, but they’re very interested to hear from the consumers, so to speak, of public education about what their concerns are.”
And it’s imperative that these changes be made so that all children have access to the same educational opportunities.
“In essence, when we talk about this, it’s as much a civil rights issue as anything else,” Borgognoni said. “It’s called fair, basic education. Regardless of where they live, regardless of their wealth or poverty, the constitution guarantees that, and those rights aren’t reaching a lot of our children right now in this state.”
Those in school districts in the Cayuga-Onondaga and Tompkins-Seneca-Tioga BOCES are invited to attend the forum from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 4, at Auburn West Middle School auditorium, 217 Genesee St., Auburn. For those in school districts in the Onondaga-Cortland-Madison and Oswego County BOCES, the forum will be held from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 5, at North Syracuse Junior High School, 5353 W. Taft Road, North Syracuse. The featured presenter is Dr. Rick Timbs, executive director of the Statewide School Finance Consortium. For more information, visit cnysba.com.
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.