Niagara Gazette

Local News

April 10, 2013

N-W talks cash


Niagara Gazette — So, school board President Steven Sabo said, what's left is extremely popular non-mandated programs which make Niagara-Wheatfield special. And once they're gone, there's going to be a lot more questions to answer, he said.

"Our list of those things we can cut are kindergarten, music and sports," he said. "We can't raise class sizes anymore, because there won't be enough teachers to offer any programs for our kids to take. We might as well call up Niagara Falls, Lewiston, Starpoint and North Tonawanda and just disperse our students there. We won't have a school."

With no increase to the district's tax levy, though, the district would need to close a more-than-$3 million gap, effectively eliminating all of those non-mandated items, including elementary music, varsity and junior varsity sports and full-day kindergarten, Sabo said.

How did Niagara-Wheatfield find itself in such a desperate situation? Unlike last year's debacle, which was created through questionable accounting practices, much of this year's increase is driven by rising unfunded mandates New York has passed down the ladder.

Contributions to health care and the teacher and employee retirement systems have all led to increased costs which the state doesn't provide money to offset. But the biggest blow to Niagara-Wheatfield's finances is the Gap Elimination Adjustment.

Conceived by then-Gov. David Paterson following the housing market bubble burst prior to the 2008 presidential election, the GEA was an attempt to close the state's multibillion-dollar deficit by taking a percentage of each of the state's school district's foundation aid, the most common form of state money schools receive.

Niagara-Wheatfield is scheduled to pay back $3.4 million of its state aid next year, after returning $4.6 million in this year's budget. Combined, the district has returned approximately $17 million in money it could have used since the GEA was instituted four years ago.

"The state's saying we can't give you what the formulas should provide while it's also limiting what we can have the taxpayers provide (under the state's tax cap)," Interim Business Manager Richard Hitzges said. "There would be no conversation (about a budget gap)."

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

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