Niagara Gazette

February 2, 2014

Falls school officials unhappy with Cuomo budget numbers

By Timothy Chipp
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — Budget planners in the Niagara Falls City School District got some good news when Gov. Andrew Cuomo released his executive budget proposal.

Cuomo’s proposal provided the city’s district with a $1.7 million increase in state aid, a significant number if compared to the figures neighboring districts Lewiston-Porter and Niagara-Wheatfield, both reductions in help, saw in the same release. It comes out to a 2 percent increase.

But such an increase wasn’t received well by district leadership, which bemoaned the continued freeze of some of the district’s most lucrative in-come.

“Obviously we’re extremely disappointed,” Superintendent Cynthia Bianco said. “We’re still not back to a level of funding we were at in 2008-09.”

Much of the proposed increase in the governor’s run is provided by a reduction of the state’s gap elimination adjustment. Created by Gov. David Paterson following the 2007 and 2008 financial meltdowns of the housing market and Wall Street, the gap elimination originally took $8 million from district state aid in order to close a multibillion-dollar state-wide shortfall.

Cuomo’s plan would see the district return $2.2 million in 2014-15, about $1.3 million less than this current year.

GEA restoration, according to state Sen. George Maziarz, is tied into poverty levels, which led Cuomo’s proposal to provide a high level to Niagara Falls, while a district like Lew-Port would see its figure drop to $1.8 million next year, a decrease of only $46,000 from this year.

Still, it’s not enough for some of the district’s decision makers.

“Our district’s three or four times the size,” school board President Russell Petrozzi said. “The big thing is the poverty rate in Niagara Falls is astronomical compared to Lewiston. Taxpayers are expected to be able to take care of education by their ability to pay. That’s not happening here.”

While the GEA still exists, another issue Niagara Falls has is the frozen level of foundation aid, the state’s general money and the highest single form of payment to any school districts. Niagara Falls, with a $140 million budget, receives $70.5 million in foundation aid, though it hasn’t been increased in more than four years despite increasing costs of education.

With this income stagnant and all other state aid arriving in the form of reimbursements for money the district already spent, officials asked residents this past May to shoulder the burden of a tax levy increase for the first time in 20 years.

In addition to a continued freeze of foundation aid, the governor’s proposal also provides an excess of reimbursements as part of its state aid package, according to Administrator for School Business Services Timothy Hyland. He said more than $500 million of the governor’s proposed $800 million increase in aid to districts is made through reimbursement payments, whether for universal pre-kindergarten or items like transportation.

Combined with the frozen foundation aid, Hyland said all of the increases were a bit upsetting to him.

“We were very shocked,” Hyland said. “We’d heard there was a (state) surplus this year.”

Cuomo’s proposal is only the first step in the budgeting process. The state legislature has until April 1 to pass a budget on time and is ultimately responsible for setting aid levels. Maziarz said last week interest has been shown in the senate to both eliminate the GEA and unfreeze foundation aid levels for districts in 2014-15.

Big red number $1.7M Amount of state aid increase for Falls district under Cuomo's proposed budget

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