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School districts fear for their futures

Thursday, February 09, 2012 - Updated: 12:50 AM

By JAIME STUDD

Recorder News Staff

BROADALBIN -- Broadalbin-Perth Central School District Superintendent Stephen Tomlinson is at a loss. He's at a loss for solutions and, more importantly, at a loss for money.

So, in the absence of a sword, he picked up a pen and channeled his frustrations into a letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo this week.

"I want him to know that we need help. He's the number one advocate in New York state for children, so I'm asking him for help," Tomlinson said.

In the letter, Tomlinson painted a dire picture of his district's fiscal affairs, detailed the multitude of cost-cutting measures already undertaken in previous years, and begged the governor to intervene on behalf of the students he pledged to "lobby" for in his recent budget address.

"We are dangerously close to being unable to provide our students with the sound, basic education that is guaranteed them by the state Constitution," Tomlinson said in the letter.

Despite having cut approximately 10 percent of its staff and eliminating numerous athletic and extracurricular offerings over the past three years, Tomlinson projects that the district will face having to close an estimated $2.4 million gap in the upcoming budget process, and that's after nearly exhausting the district's entire fund balance.

"We need you to work with us to find real and immediate solutions to the problems that Broadalbin-Perth is facing," the letter reads. "We can't wait two or three years -- our school district won't survive that long."

According to the letter, B-P is facing the very real possibility of having to eliminate art and music instruction on the elementary level, French as a foreign language, upper-level Spanish classes, social workers and all interscholastic athletics and extracurricular programs.

In addition, the district faces significant reductions in technology instruction in the elementary and middle schools, health instruction in the middle school, science, social studies and business electives in the high schools, career and technical education in the high school and the reduction of kindergarten from a full to a half-day program.

"They (the cuts) are real to the Broadalbin-Perth district," said Tomlinson. "There is nothing that is sugar-coated there. It is as real as it can get."

"These are not decisions that my board of education, or myself, as the superintendent, have made. These were decisions that were made by our politicians," he added.

In the letter, Tomlinson asks the governor to:

* Reallocate the $250 million in proposed grant funding to be distributed on the basis of need instead of achievement.

* Re-draft the school-aid formula so that more funding is supplied to the districts most in need.

* Enact immediate mandate relief.

If nothing is done, Tomlinson said his district will face two possible scenarios.

"If the budget that's proposed to the tax payers gets passed, and the budget that we're presenting to the taxpayers will be levying taxes only under the tax cap law, if that gets passed, then we're looking at significant staff reductions to the point that we're only able to provide a mandated education," said Tomlinson. "If the budget gets defeated, I, honestly, at this point, do not know how we will be able to operate."

Unfortunately, Tomlinson is not alone.

Both the Fonda-Fultonville and Mayfield school districts are also facing multi-million dollar gaps in their respective budgets.

"I will be right behind him," said Mayfield Superintendent Paul Williamsen, referring to Tomlinson and the extensive cuts he may be forced to make.

"We've done an elimination of 18 teaching positions in the last two years, an elimination of 11 positions in the last two years in the support staff area, one administrator ... how far do we go and we can't do our business any longer," Williamsen said.

According to Williamsen, the Mayfield Central School District may be facing a budget shortfall of $2 million to $3 million, though he cautions that the figures are extremely preliminary.

Mayfield, said Williamsen, will also likely be forced to make drastic cuts to its program offerings. Projected cost-saving measures in Mayfield include the elimination of one of two foreign languages currently offered. Also being seriously considered for elimination will be the district's clubs, AP courses and honors courses.

Williamsen said he will also look at eliminating the remainder of the athletics (a number of interscholastic sports were cut from the district budget last year) and, possibly, kindergarten.

"I have kindergarten. So, do I go half time or do I eliminate it totally?" said Williamsen. "Do what extent do we cut all of our programs just so we can meet the mandate and meet our payrolls and only be our expenses?"

"This is just devastating. This is not something we signed up for," he said. "You will not recognize our schools if this continues."

Williamsen cited drastic decreases in state funding over the years as among the most financially damaging budget upheavals.

Recently, Cuomo announced a 4 percent increase in state aid to local school districts statewide. The proposed increase, however, is based on a number of factors and is not applied unilaterally.

For Mayfield, the state aid increase for the coming year amounts to approximately .06 percent, or $50,402.

"This is not fun," said Williamsen.

Fonda-Fultonville Superintendent James Hoffman said his district is also facing a seemingly insurmountable deficit this budget season.

"We're in serious trouble," said Hoffman. "If we go entirely to our cap, and it's approved by the voters, we have a $2.7 million hole. That's keeping everything as it is. Obviously, we have to cut major cuts."

"It's incredibly depressing because there's no way out unless something changes," he said. "It's got to change dramatically for that kind of money."

Hoffman said he projects state aid to his district to increase by a mere $30,000 in the coming year.

"That's not even one teacher," he said.

According to Hoffman, aid to Fonda-Fultonville is at its lowest point since the 2003-04 school year.

"We were up to $15.4 million in state aid in 2009. This year, we have $12.9 million," he said.

Hoffman said the state aid formula "unfairly penalizes" the poor, mostly rural, districts who rely heavily on state dollars for funding.

"In poorer communities, the tax cap has a greater onerous impact because we don't have a lot of wealth," said Hoffman. "So a 1 percent increase in our tax rate is only $90,000."

"In our district, about 60 percent of our money comes from state aid. You cut my state aid by five percent, that's a lot of money and a big percentage of our budget," he added. "In Voorheesville, for example, state aid is about 10 percent of their budget. You cut theirs by 5 percent, it's not as big a deal. So, the districts that are dependent upon the state for their livelihood, get killed when they cut the aid."

Hoffman said cuts in the F-F school district will likely be systemwide.

"We are going to have major reductions this year. As I said to the board last year, we were out of tricks. We didn't have any other corners we could cut. We didn't have any other little places we could reduce or squeak by with this or that. We've done all those things over the last three years. We're out of those things."

Hoffman said staff will likely be reduced dramatically in the elementary, middle and high schools. Positions eliminated will include aides, teachers, teaching assistants and secretaries.

Most dramatic, however, will be the program cuts.

"All of the electives will go away; college and high school programs will go away," said Hoffman. "I mean, we are going to decimate our system this year? We are going to be going back into the stone age."

In reducing the budget in the two previous fiscal years, Hoffman said the district has already used all of its fund balance, eliminating that as an option to close this year's gap.

"We used up all our fund balance. We don't have any fund balance left, so we can't turn to that. We've cut back on everything we could cut back on," said Hoffman. "We've been very careful with our taxpayers, and what happened is we're out of tricks and they have not raised the aid to us."

Barring significant changes at the state level, Hoffman said the district's athletic programs will, more than likely, face significant cuts.

"I don't know if we'll do it completely, or partially, or what, but there's definitely gonna have to be reductions," said Hoffman. "I can't justify having 30 kids in a classroom and having a full sports program. We are not a sports program that happens to have a school district around it. We are a school district that happens to have a sports program."

Fortunately, not every local school district is facing such debilitating budget woes, this year.

Having been identified by the state as a high needs district, the Greater Amsterdam School District is set to receive a $1.7 million increase in state aid for the coming year, according to Superintendent Thomas Perillo.

"Since 2008, we'd been getting our state aid funding cut and cut and cut. Last year, the cut was somewhere around $3 million," said Perillo. "The increase of the $1.7 million certainly puts us in a better position than it has over the last couple of years."

Citing the preliminary stages of the budget process, Perillo said it was difficult to estimate whether or not any significant changes will need to be made in the current year, but he did say that the district will continue investigating and undertaking cost-saving initiatives to better prepare itself for any future fiscal cuts that may need to be made.

"It's kind of hard to say right now because we are really in the preliminary stages of everything," said Perillo. "But I believe, when you look at the state funding that we're getting, and the taxes that we collect, we're in a better place than we were last year."

In Northville, Superintendent Kathy Dougherty said drastic cuts made in her district last year have somewhat mitigated any need to continue dismantling educational programs.

"Right now, based on no staffing cuts, which is where we'd like it to be, we've got an increase in expenditures of .08 percent, which is tiny, about $7,000," said Dougherty.

Given the current budget figures and state aid projections, Dougherty projects the district's tax levy increase to be hovering around 13 percent, less than 10 percent above where it needs to be to meet the state mandated tax cap.

In addition, Dougherty said the district is already moving forward with plans to allocate approximately $300,000 from its fund balance, which would leave the district only approximately 6 percent short of the cap.

"It's not as bad as last year because we've already made the cuts," said Dougherty. "In Northville, we've cut 23.6 positions in the last four years, which is about one quarter of our staff. So some of those recurring expenses we've eliminated.

"But, having made these cuts, where do you go now? You've cut what you feel you can, without really impacting on programs," she added.

Unique to the Broadalbin-Perth, Mayfield and Northville School Districts in the repeated failure of the Hudson River-Black River Regulating District to pay its annual school taxes.

Over the summer, the regulating district paid the districts the two years' worth of delinquent taxes it owed to them, but the schools were, once again, left empty-handed when it came time to pay this year's taxes.

"If we were to get the Hudson River money, we could go out, I think, right now, with meeting the tax levy cap and not really having to make much, if any adjustments in our staffing," said Dougherty.

Dougherty said her district is owed approximately $360,000 by the regulating district.

"Hudson River, that means $372,000 for me in tax money that I haven't received," said Williamsen. "That's very disconcerting."

"There's kindergarten plus right there," he said.

In his letter to the governor, Tomlinson said the regulating district owes the Broadalbin-Perth schools nearly $290,000 and identifies the HRBRRD as B-P's "single largest taxpayer."

"We do not anticipate that it will be able to pay because its revenue problem has not yet been resolved," Tomlinson wrote.

With the letter, Tomlinson said he hopes, more than anything, to gain the governor's undivided attention.

"I hope I hear from the governor. I don't want to hear from anybody but the governor," said Tomlinson. "I want the governor to tell us what we've done wrong and how to fix it. I want solutions and I want it from the governor."

He is doubtful, however, that it will actually make it as far as the governor's desk.

"Despite the efforts we're making to get it into his hands, I think it will stop," he said. "I think the governor is asking to hear from the people, but I don't think the message the people are trying to deliver is going to get to him. I think his aides, I think the layers of people surrounding the governor, will prevent this letter from getting to the governor."

     

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