Niagara Gazette

January 23, 2014

Cuomo's budget comes with 0.5 percent decrease in state aid for Niagara-Wheatfield

By Timothy Chipp
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — WHEATFIELD — Current projections from Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s 2014-15 executive budget are worse than originally expected for Niagara-Wheatfield School District residents.

The financially struggling school district, like many in Niagara County, would actually see a decrease in school aid in the preliminary state spending plan released Tuesday.

Cuomo’s proposal would see a 0.5 percent decrease in funding for Niagara-Wheatfield itself, compared to the current year’s budget adopted last spring. It’s a figure flying in the face of what many are hearing coming from the governor’s lips as he addresses his plan.

“I’ve heard (Gov. Cuomo) talk about an increase in education spending,” Niagara-Wheatfield School Board President Steve Sabo said. “That’s not school aid. There’s a difference.”

Originally, the district projected a 2.3 percent increase in state aid Tuesday under Cuomo’s plan. But the figure compared the executive budget for next fiscal year to the same offering this past year.

When the proposal is compared to the actual, adopted spending plan voted on by the state legislature, Niagara-Wheatfield went from receiving $23.2 million to a $23.1 million.

Cuomo’s budget, which serves as a starting point for lawmakers in Albany to work from, proposed a 3.8 percent increase in spending on educational matters, including major funding for universal implementation of pre-kindergarten across the state and performance pay for teachers based first laid out in the State of the State address earlier this month.

But the proposal also continues to include an item that’s become the bane of almost every school district across the state and definitely in Western New York. The Gap Elimination Adjustment, or GEA, continues to draw state aid from school districts.

Sabo said the budget decision originally made by Gov. David Paterson following the housing market recession and Wall Street crisis in 2007 significantly harms Niagara-Wheatfield and should be eliminated immediately.

“Our district, if you calculate it, has lost roughly $19 million in state aid since it went into effect,” Sabo said. “Think of all the layoffs and cuts we’ve had to make for the last few years. It doesn’t add up to $19 million. It’s time to get rid of that so districts can start building themselves back up.”

Cuomo’s proposal does provide some reduction in lost state aid, though the executive budget proposes restoring $307,000 to the district. It would, under Cuomo’s figures, still see $3.1 million lost next year.

All the state aid figures come at a time when Niagara-Wheatfield suffered a major blow dealing with its own financial stress. A state comptroller’s office report released last week listed Niagara-Wheatfield on its significantly stressed list along with 11 others state-wide, meaning it’s highly susceptible to catastrophe due to lack of money.

The comptroller’s office examined school data from June focused on the district’s financial stability to determine it had a high level of stress, evidenced in the property tax levy increases proposed by the district’s school board the past two years.

Yet, despite the grim outlook for the district, plans to spend $500,000 of its small cash reserves to purchase a set of new school buses for the first time in three years is still in the works. The purchase is subject to voter approval, which will be gauged in a special vote from noon to 8 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 4.

Defending the decision to move forward with the spending despite the state’s chastisement was particularly easy for the district’s superintendent Wednesday.

“How will we get our kids to school?” Lynn Fusco said. “The organization needs to continue to run. We may be in critical condition but we still need to move ourselves forward. If we don’t get the kids to school, we won’t have a reason to worry about any money and we’ll be done. That’s not going to happen.”

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