LI school officials target GEA that cost districts $1B in state aid

Middle County Central School District Superintendent Dr. Roberta Middle County Central School District Superintendent Dr. Roberta Gerold sits in on a mid-level extended school program taught by Matt Giordano inside the New Lane Memorial Elementary School. (Aug. 6, 2013) Photo Credit: Steve Pfost

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A coalition of Long Island public school officials is launching a campaign to eliminate a state law they say has cost school districts in Nassau and Suffolk nearly $1 billion in state aid over the past three years.

The administrators plan to announce their call to end the Gap Elimination Adjustment, or GEA, at a news conference Thursday in Dix Hills.

"It's a critically important issue. Districts are strapped for finances," said Gary Bixhorn, chief operating officer of Eastern Suffolk BOCES and legislative chairman of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association.

The Suffolk superintendents association and its Nassau counterpart plan to urge residents to write to their legislators and take other actions to eliminate the GEA, which is incorporated into complex formulas used to calculate annual state aid to districts.

The Gap Elimination Adjustment initially was introduced in 2009-10 as a way to help reduce the state's $10 billion budget deficit, officials said. It essentially reduced the amount of aid each district received from the state.

Over the past three years, it has resulted in state-aid cuts totaling $6.35 billion statewide, including almost $1 billion to districts on the Island, according to the superintendents associations in Suffolk and Nassau.

This year's reduction to Long Island totaled $290 million, Bixhorn said. If that money were restored, he said, it would amount to a 12 percent increase in state aid.

State Sen. John J. Flanagan (R-East Northport), chairman of the Senate's Education Committee, said the Senate has been strongly behind reducing or eliminating the GEA, calling it "the single most effective thing we can do" to help schools.

"It continues to have a chilling effect on districts," Flanagan said Wednesday.

He said he doubts it will be totally eliminated in next year's budget, as the state continues to struggle with financial problems. But he thinks the total amounts of cuts caused by the GEA could be reduced, as they have been for the past couple of years.

A spokesman for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said the governor had directed $918 million toward eliminating the GEA in the past two years. State Education Department officials did not respond to a request for comment.

Long Island school officials said the GEA, the property tax cap and the still-rebounding economy have had a significant impact on staffing and programs.

Roberta Gerold, president of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association and superintendent of the Middle Country school district, said that five years ago all 10 elementary schools in her district had full-time librarians. Those eventually became half-time positions, and today there is only one full-time librarian to service all 10 schools.

"Our kids really don't have library services anymore," Gerold said.

Some of the districts hardest-hit are in less affluent areas, Bixhorn said. Sachem, for example, lost $1,223 in state aid per pupil this year due to the GEA, while Patchogue-Medford lost $1,000 per pupil. In Nassau, he said, Freeport lost $1,009 per pupil and Long Beach lost $954 per pupil.

Long Island school districts are getting less total state aid in 2013-14 than they did in 2008-09, dropping from $2.62 billion to $2.54 billion, Bixhorn said.

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