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State owes our schools a LOT more, local officials say

An undated file photo of an empty classroom.

An undated file photo of an empty classroom. Photo Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

When Warwick schools Superintendent Ray Bryant on Wednesday called the $1 billion increase in state aid to schools in the fiscal 2014 state budget a "payment on a past due bill," he spoke for many in the education community who feel Albany has not lived up to its promises on school funding.

Those promises were made in 2007, after the state lost a pivotal court case that focused on funding for New York City schools and was forced to increase funding substantially statewide. The increases lasted only until the recent deep recession forced massive cuts in Albany.

Had the cuts to school aid not been made -- through a mechanism known as the Gap Elimination Adjustment -- 94 school districts in the Hudson Valley would be getting an additional $680 million for the 2012-13 school year, according to an analysis by Bruce Baker, a professor in the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers.

"State aid is still not where it was. It's not keeping up with what they promised nor is it keeping up with inflation," said Robert Dillon, executive director of Newburgh-based Mid-Hudson School Study Council.

The Capital Region Boards of Cooperative Educational Services in Albany calculates that, in the last three years, the state failed to provide $6.12 billion promised to schools.

A governor's office spokesman rejected the claims that school districts are owed money.

"These special interest-backed claims flunk basic math when you consider that this year's state budget increases education aid by over $1 billion this year and $805 million last year, more than double the rate of inflation," said Matthew Wing, a spokesman for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

Some educators call the state aid included in the fiscal 2014 budget -- now being finalized -- a "decrease disguised as an increase." Educators point to one line in state aid data that is so complex as to be indecipherable to the average taxpayer. The one line states the amount of a district's Gap Elimination Adjustment.

"What is the Gap Elimination Adjustment, really?" said Lisa Davis, executive director of the Westchester Putnam School Boards Association. "It is the state balancing its budget on the backs of kids."

The Gap Elimination Adjustment cuts went into effect in 2010 under Gov. David Paterson. The reductions stripped away promises of $7 billion in school aid contained in the Education Budget and Reform Act of 2007. Enactment of the 2007 law was brought about when a nonprofit consortium of education organizations called the Campaign for Fiscal Equity convinced the state Court of Appeals that state government has a constitutional obligation to fund adequate educations for all New York schoolchildren.

For the past three years, state lawmakers and Cuomo have added funding for school aid, chipping away at the Gap Elimination Adjustment and bringing schools closer to the aid levels promised in 2007.

An explanatory video by Capital Region BOCES puts it in layman's terms: Let's say someone hired you at $50 an hour. But the next week he pays you $44 instead. The following week, you receive $45, and your employer says he's increased your pay.

"We're still down $700,000 that they're taking back from us," Valhalla Schools Superintendent Brenda Myers said Wednesday while also expressing gratitude that the district is getting 4.7 percent more next year than this year. "Obviously, we'd love to see complete restoration."

Dillon said the shortfalls are primarily what's driving school closures, layoffs and program cuts.

Davis said school board members are certainly aware of the economic pressures facing the state, but they are frustrated by their own lack of resources and inaction regarding state mandates for special education services, a situation that increases costs in the local districts without providing funding.

"There's certainly an appreciation with what's going on in the budget and the economy," Davis said. "But the state ... is not doing anything to the larger-ticket mandates, which is the only way that we're going to be able to put money back into the classroom."

Said state Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the Democratic leader: "Although this budget included a number of positive measures, members of the Democratic Conference and I were concerned that it left important issues unresolved and some of our constituents in the cold. The education piece is one example.

"Indeed, education aid increased from last year, but my conference and I understood this was not enough. That's why we proposed an amendment to the budget which would have provided additional education aid to school districts. Unfortunately, the Majority Coalition wouldn't allow the amendment to come to the floor.

"Nevertheless,  we understand that the Gap Elimination Adjustment was intended to be a temporary measure to deal with the State's ballooning budget deficits during the financial crisis and was never meant to be a permanent cut to school funding. It is important that we find a way to eliminate the GEA as our economy improves and our budget gaps stabilize," she said.

Video explanation of the Gap Elimination Adjustment by the Capital Region BOCES:

GEA- Statewide from Cap Region BOCES on Vimeo.

Find out how much your school district would be receiving, if fully funded.

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