Niagara Gazette

January 21, 2014

While other districts see increases, Lew-Port stripped of state aid in Cuomo's budget

By Timothy Chipp
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — When Lewiston-Porter Superintendent Christopher Roser needed some good news from Albany Tuesday, he was met with a bushel of rotten apples.

Less than a week after state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli's office revealed Lew-Port's significant fiscal stress level, second-highest among the state's more than 600 school districts, Roser received projections for Gov. Andrew Cuomo's executive budget and its run of projected state aid to each school district.

Lew-Port is once again on an island in Niagara County, with Cuomo's numbers forecasting the district to lose $189,000 in state funding next year, the only one in the area.

"I'm speechless," Roser said in dismay. "This is a huge setback."

Roser originally bemoaned the comptroller's report because of a number of financial concerns he has no control over. It's a perfect storm, he said. The fiscal stress monitoring system pegged his district at 82 percent stressed financially using data derived from this past school year.

Yet, Roser said, the state continues to insist on its gap elimination adjustment – or GEA – as part of its budgeting process. Created under the watch of former Gov. David Paterson, the GEA served as the state's way of recuperating money following the housing market crash in 2007 and the subsequent Wall Street crisis to close a multibillion-dollar budget deficit.

But Roser said it serves another purpose now, to force districts to spend the savings they'd built up – rightly or not – for rainy days. Unfortunately for Lew-Port residents, Roser said his rainy day fund dried up last year.

He said he hoped the current year's budget, which eliminated 43 positions despite a tax levy increase of almost 4 percent for residents, would serve as a benchmark moving the district into a new normal. He said the district was careful to save as many programs it could while making precise cuts instead of just eliminating course offerings students enjoyed but the district couldn't afford.

The result of the latest projections, if upheld by the state legislature come March and April, could force Roser to make some difficult choices residents will not want to hear.

"I thought we'd done everything we could to drive ourselves to a new base," he said. "But now, I'm not so sure.

"We'll have to do what other districts have done and eliminate a lot of the programs, which we've spent years doing everything we can to protect."

Cuomo's projections not only increase state aid to every other district in Niagara County, there's also moderate money returned to districts through a reduction in GEA removed from the equation. Niagara-Wheatfield, itself a district facing significant fiscal stress, would receive more than $300,000 in GEA reduction under the current projections. Lew-Port, operating on a budget roughly two-thirds the amount as Niagara-Wheatfield, will only receive $46,000 in reduced GEA subtraction.

Overall, Lew-Port would see a 1.67 percent decrease in state aid. Wilson Central School District is closest in the county to zero receiving less than 0.1 percent more than this current year. Every other county district would see at least 1 percent more aid.

Attention will soon turn toward putting together a spending plan for 2014-15, which will use Cuomo's projections as a fairly accurate guide. The situation has school board President Michael Gentile questioning the role of the board of education, not just in Lew-Port but around the state.

"As a board of education, we're no longer in the business of building anything up anymore," he said. "Now all we're doing is looking at what cuts would do the least harm. We're trying to do the least harm."

Contact reporter Timothy Chipp at 282-2311, ext. 2251 or follow on Twitter @timchipp.