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An addition onto a house on fire: the GEA’s effect on the S-GI district

SPRINGVILLE —Springville-Griffith Institute School District is looking to the future, as budget cuts edge further and further into austerity. One of those actions is a call to exempt state aid for education from the calculation of the New York state Gap Elimination Adjustment, since “adequate state funding is constitutionally mandated and essential to meet all mandates and obligations and to maintain the quality of education in the S-GI district,” according to the board’s call to action.

“Several years ago, the state figured out that it couldn’t possibly pay what the courts had ordered,” Business Administrator Ted Welch explained. “It then created the GEA, a very complicated negative formula, that actually hurts the poorer districts, like S-GI.”

The GEA has resulted in state aid to S-GI’s being reduced by $14,084,864 which, in turn, has resulted in a cost shift to the local property taxpayers.

The board maintained that this cost shift has “resulted in unsustainable measures to balance the S-GI district budgets, including the reduction and elimination of programs, personnel, services and fund reserves.”

“We had to do a lot of cuts, a couple of years ago,” said Delia Bonenberger, president of the board. “We’re trying to avoid doing that, since it will affect class size and critical programs. A lot of people were unhappy with those class sizes, but at this point, with the reductions in staff we’ve been forced to do, there’s nowhere to go but up.”

Both Welch and Bonenberger noted that S-GI is not alone in calling for the state to exempt districts from the GEA. “Across the state, many districts are taking the same action, as well as the New York State School Board Association, the New York State [Association of School Business Officials] and other advocacy groups,” said Welch.

The business official added that he “fully expects the Legislature to give school districts a windfall, late in the game, but whether that will affect S-GI, I don’t know.”

The state has given districts that windfall in the past, but Welch noted that the most aid tends to go to the wealthiest districts, and rural, less affluent districts like S-GI end up coming up short.

As far as the budget process is concerned, Welch said he is less concerned about 2014-2015 than the following year, when S-GI’s budget will carry a $2 million deficit thanks to a lack of state funding. The following year, he expects that figure to double.

“Our only real opportunity to make up that gap is the property tax and state aid,” Welch said. “I can’t speak for the board, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it had to override the state tax cap, which currently stands at about 1.4 percent. Our needs are much, much higher than that.”

Bonenberger said that she hopes the board won’t have to exceed the tax cap, but that the board will do “what it needs to do,” especially in the face of unfunded mandates and programs the state would like school districts to implement, such as prekindergarten and an increased focus on technology.

“Who doesn’t like pre-K? Everyone likes pre-K. And I’m a big technology advocate, but the money for these things has to come from somewhere, and when we’re cutting in other, essential places, well,” Bonenberger said. “To try to ramp these up above other issues statewide, it’s a tricky thing.”

Welch quoted S-GI Superintendent Paul Connelly who has asked, “What will we get to first: financial bankruptcy or educational bankruptcy?

“There are a lot of educational mandates on the books,” Welch said, referring to Common Core educational mandates that are often unfunded by state aid. “And we’re getting to a point where we’re not going to be able to meet those mandates with the funds we have. Unless some of the funding changes, I see it looking very, very bleak, down the road.”

In an effort to prevent that from happening, the district has asked the state Legislature to immediately exempt state aid for education from the calculation of the GEA.

“It’s a shame,” Welch added. “We’re asked to do so much more and our resources are so limited, we can’t provide the type of education we want to, that we used to. Unless something changes, schools are going to look very, very different.”

“If there’s one thing we can count on, it’s change,” Bonenberger said. “I heard a gentleman say that it’s like trying to build an addition onto a house that’s on fire. And I think that’s an apt image.”

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