Strain of state budget cutbacks anticipated by school officials

By Julia Green
When Margaretville Central School Superintendent Tony Albanese goes before the MCS Board of Education at 7 p.m. tonight, he will be presenting a proposed program budget and overview of budget information that has been the source of much speculation in light of the statewide budget crisis facing New York State.
“We had one workshop already and presented the capital and administrative budgets,” said Albanese, whose school district already saw a reduction of just over $230,000 in state aid. Margaretville also felt the pinch when the governor’s office did not send the March payments to school districts on time.
“That $86,000 has been restored, but we’re concerned that there might be another holdup in payments by the governor’s office in April or May, and while we’re certainly hopeful that the governor’s office will continue to pay that money back, it can cause some cash flow problems as time goes on,” he said.
Albanese said his goal for the 2010-2011 budget is between two and three percent on the tax levy, but added that his district’s attempts at trimming last year has made this year’s budget process all the more difficult.
“We’re working very hard to maintain our programming and to maintain our staffing,” he said. “Last year we trimmed back quite substantially – we were at .79 percent under what we had spent the year before as far as our budget was concerned, so it just becomes that much more difficult in 10-11 to trim back where we’ve already trimmed back. Right now we’re working with the governor’s office proposal and we certainly recognize that the state is in dire straits as far as the overall budget is concerned.”
The 2010-2011 executive budget proposed by the New York State Department of the Budget recommends $20.5 billion for School Aid – a reduction of $1.1 billion, or five percent, from 2009-2010.
According to the 2010-2011 Executive Budget Briefing Book, New York State spends more per pupil overall ($15,546) than nearly any other state and 61 percent above the national average. The state ranks first in per-pupil spending for school district employee salaries (71 percent above the national average) and benefits (109 percent above the national average).

Economic factors
The briefing book also puts into context the rate of growth in school aid in relation to the state of the American economy. During the boom on Wall Street, aid to schools increased at what the Department of the Budget referred to as a “rapid and unsustainable rate;” the department added that even after the year-to-year reduction to school aid proposed in the executive budget, state support for education would still have increased by $6.1 billion, or 42 percent, compared to the 2003-2004 year – twice the rate of inflation (19 percent) during that time.
Education funding represents over 34 percent of state operating funds spending, even as the state continues to face massive budget gaps, which is the justification the Department of the Budget gives for “required” reductions in school aid support. The proposed reduction represents two percent of school districts’ total general fund expenditures statewide.
“What I’m going to be asking the board for is another meeting prior to their adopting the budget, and probably that will happen after April 1,” Albanese said, adding that at that point he will present the superintendent’s budget to the board, which will formally adopt a budget on April 26. “But we still have a lot of conversation to go through.
“At the last meeting I went through what we’re mandated to provide and what are non-mandated, and I believe this might bet he first time in a long time or ever that the board has to be considering some of our non-mandated programs, to even consider not having those or trimming those back.”
Margaretville has been able to avoid allowing the budget cuts to have substantial impacts on programming thus far, and Albanese said the administration will continue to attempt to mitigate those impacts to the best of its ability.
“So far we’re finding rabbits out of the hat, but we’ll be doing some things a little bit differently,” he said. “We’ll be trying to take this as a positive step to look at how we provide our programming, how to provide things at no additional cost, and see what we can do with what we have before we jump to the other side and start taking away things.”
Albanese added that all Board of Education meetings are open forums and that the public is always invited to be there, adding that the board will publicize the next meeting and that information on the MCS budget will be made available on the school Web site.
And, while he is optimistic about all parties involved making the best attempts to meet schools’ needs, Albanese said that students in the local area face a unique set of challenges.
“We’re small rural schools, and even though our district is considered ‘property-wealthy,’ many of our families are in poverty and we’re trying to put out a good educational product. But the playing field really is not level for our students, and if we’re trying to create more of a balance in terms of our students’ opportunities, we have to look better at what our small rural school is all about, especially when the population is declining and the infrastructure is starting to change.
“The needs are greater than ever before, and that concerns me as we continue to get cut.”
Roxbury Central School Superintendent Tom O’Brien echoed a similar sentiment, adding that school officials should be careful not to treat this year’s budget as an isolated project.
“One of the things we have to be prepared for with the whole entire budget in New York State is that we can’t just look at it on an annual basis, we have to look at it long-term,” he said. “That’s what we’re doing – we’re trying to do the best forecasting we can to be prepared for a continued freeze in the type of support we get from the state, and hoping that we get some sort of relief, be it fiscal or regulatory. There are certain unfunded mandates that cost us money, and other things that go on that make it more difficult for us, and we as a small school have the same requirements as large schools and sometimes the price tag is the same, and sometimes that makes it difficult.”
O’Brien presented preliminary budget numbers to the Board of Education and the public last Wednesday – numbers that showed a 2.11 percent increase on the budget and a 2.88 increase on the tax levy. The next presentation will be held March 24 and the board is scheduled to adopt on April 14. A public hearing will follow on May 4.
“That’s not a final number,” O’Brien said of the proposed figure. “We’re still working on it.”
Last year, Roxbury saw a minimal increase of .4 percent – a figure the school was able to facilitate in part by eliminating positions.
“We’re in the midst of contract negotiations with our teachers right now,” O’Brien said. “Last year I eliminated positions, but I don’t feel like I’m going to need to do that right now, this year. Last year we had done that, and that’s one of the reasons we were able to come in with such a low budget. We have to be careful right now because next year’s going to be the year, and the last thing I need to do is to not look ahead like that.”
O’Brien emphasized the importance of keeping in mind the freezing of foundation aid as well as other cuts to areas like summer school and special education in looking ahead, adding that school officials would be smart to anticipate more cuts down the road.
“Next year we’re facing another funding cliff because there won’t be any recovery money,” he said. “We could probably see another freeze in state aid, as well, so that’s the situation.”