School Daze: As Cuomo pushes competitative grants, school districts come to terms with a permanent recession

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As budget negotiations entered their final stages last week, teachers and students crammed the halls of the Capitol, carrying signs and shouting slogans for increased school aid.

Given that Gov. Andrew Cuomo's proposal this year raises education spending by 4 percent, an $805 million bump over last year, all the activity seemed a bit superfluous. But a brief glance at the fiscal woes of school districts across the state suggests otherwise.

Take the Haverstraw?Stony Point school district in northern Rockland County. It has lost $10 million in state aid over the last three years. It has laid off 118 staff members, and will lose another 17 teachers this year.

Two of the five elementary schools have closed, as well as one middle school. Ninth graders are being pushed from middle school into high school to save money. And $11.6 million of the district's annual budget is tied up in an ongoing court settlement with a local utility company.

Students there can expect fewer sports programs, advanced-placement classes and music classes-and ongoing struggles to educate high-needs children.

"We have in a year's time undergone an entire transformation," said Deborah Gatti, president of the North Rockland Central School District. "We're operating under an austerity system."

And North Rockland isn't alone. Dick Weisz, president of the Guilderland school board in Albany County, said his district has eliminated 40 teachers and 40 staff positions over the last two years, and they are still looking at a $2.6 million budget deficit.

"It's a sobering time," he said. "Fewer adults means less education."

Many school districts are chafing under the 2 percent property tax cap Cuomo signed into law last year, as well as a host of mandates they say drive up costs for localities and force layoffs and other cutbacks.

Much of that anger boiled up during a meeting between school board representatives and Budget Director Robert Megna in early March. Board members complained it would be "political suicide" to submit budgets that exceeded the 2 percent cap. Megna encouraged them to negotiate concessions with their local unions.

Tim Kremer, executive director of the New York School Boards Association, said he apologized to Megna after the meeting.

"I just don't think he was in his element," Kremer said. "They were not appreciating his responses."

The message, though, was loud and clear, Kremer said: "Now we're in deep. And it does not appear anything will change for us in the near future. In fact, a lot of districts talk as if this is a permanent feeling, this particular recession. It feels like we're not going to recover from it. As some of these smaller, poorer, rural school districts say, 'There's just no way out of this hole.' "

In a statement, Megna acknowledged that times were tough for schools around the state.

"The last few fiscal years have been difficult for all levels of government, and we are pleased to have offered a long term sustainable solution to school finance by pegging aid increases to personal income growth," Megna said. "This will result in a School Aid increase of $805 million next year and more than $1.5 billion over the next two years, in addition to significant relief through pension reform. Working together, we can direct more resources to where they are most needed ? the classroom."

Cuomo is pushing a $250 million competitive grant program as a way to spur cash-strapped school districts to explore cost savings and shared services as a way to reduce expenditures.

But school boards are urging the Legislature to scale back the performance grants, arguing many of the hardest-hit school districts lack the skills and staffers-like grant writers-to compete for that pot of money.

But other groups say the grants are the only way to encourage districts to take the necessary steps to consolidate back-office operations and save real money.

"There's a status quo out there that's done things traditionally the old way. This is a more innovative and newer program that, quite frankly, awards school districts based on merit," said Elizabeth Ling, New York State director of Democrats for Education Reform.

"That can be threatening to the status quo," she said. "Even though the amount is relatively small, it's easy to focus on that, rather than making the system better."

Both the Senate and the Assembly stripped the grant program from their one-house budget bills. But Ling said she is confident that the governor can convince lawmakers to restore the funding.

"There's a lot of moving parts right now," she said. "We'll look to see how it works out."

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