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State budgets will affect area schools

TRI-COUNTY AREA—Area school districts are tightening already tight belts as they wait to learn how the 2009 New York State budget will affect them. Cuts in state aid are nearly a certainty and unknown as yet is how deep the cuts will be. State lawmakers are slated to return to Albany later this month to continue study of the financial crisis that is affecting the entire country and Gov. David Patterson is slated to present his financial run Dec. 16. Complicating the issue further, the governor is asking for reductions in aid and New York State Regents is requesting an increase in aid of $879 million.
In the Tri-County area, boards of education and administrators have been keeping close watch on news. Nancy Zimar, superintendent of schools of the Dundee Central School District, said, “We’re holding our breath till we see the financial allocations, whether they are flat or cut. The governor is supporting a four percent property tax cap and review of mergers for districts with less than 1,000 students. We’re waiting for his financial run on December 16, then we will know revenues for 2009-10.” A property tax cap of four percent has been heard frequently. Zimar said, “We’re so lean already. We’re watching our money very carefully and are trying to see how we can increase efficiency, for example in energy use and paper. Our staff have been making wonderful suggestions.” Zimar said the district is also trying to save this year to carry over to next year.
In Penn Yan, district superintendent said the district leadership team has been working on the issue for three months. In a letter from the governor received in late November, districts were told cuts would not be made now, but to be ready and expect bigger cuts next year. Orman said, “We are looking at areas that won’t touch the children. We have spent time looking at areas that we could freeze that won’t affect children or programs, such as field trips and supplies.” Some time ago the district was informed of cuts that could total $607,000, but that was not firmed up. She said staff has been asked for ideas and, “Ideas have been flowing in.” Orman said staff is the largest budget area in the district. Some actions have been initiated such as turning off computers. Orman said, “sort of little things, but they add up.” Newsletters are now sent electronically as are morning announcements. Orman said, “To get people used to what will become a way of life.” Transportation issues are also being studied.
At Watkins Glen, superintendent Tom Phillips said, “We have started the budget process to give the board an idea of the lay of the land.” He said, “The struggle is that the country has leveraged our children’s future with the $700 billion bailout. Now the state is impacting our ability to prepare our kids for the challenge.” Phillips would like to see mandate relief. Complicating the matter, New York State Regents just recommended increasing state aid to schools by $879 million. Phillips said, The governor says reduce, Regents says increase. That’s what makes school budgets so hard. We have to go blindly into setting a budget on an educated guess. We’re in uncharted territory this year.” 
Also in Schuyler County, Odessa-Montour district superintendent James Frame said, “You kind of roll with the news. Administration is going to departments with an eye to what we might cut back on. I am certainly in favor of taxpayer savings for efficiency. I believe we have a good partnership with the community and feel the community should have a say in what happens in our district. Our budget is an open book. We’re all interested in the most affordable education for our kids. We need to look at the long term effects on the community. It’s important for people to know we do everything we can to share services. We work to be as efficient as possible.”
Hammondsport superintendent Kyle Bower said, “We’re always working to reduce expenses, now we’re scrubbing all even further. We have not frozen any spending, but are limiting things further than usual. Our philosophy is to go in to next year without spending all the money in the budget. Once funding is reduced it will not bounce back.” Bower hopes that there shouldn’t be too much that comes up after this that the district won’t be prepared for. He added, there are a lot of details that need to be worked out. We continue to evaluate all non-instructional programs, clubs; anything nonessential. We want to be as cost effective as possible, but at a high level.” Bower is looking forward to a state education department audit, which will begin this week. He hopes it will help identify other areas where the district might be more cost effective.
The New York State website outlines some of the financial information that will impact school budgets. It projects a $12.5 billion deficit in 2009-10 and a $1.5 billion shortfall in the current year. General fund revenues are expected to decline by 5.8 percent as compared to 2008-09 while general fund spending is projected to increase by 11.9 percent based on commitments in current law. School aid represents more than one third of the state’s general fund spending.
Superintendents in New York State school districts received a letter from Patterson last week which he termed an open letter to school board presidents and superintendents regarding upcoming budget actions. He said, “Because mid year reductions were not enacted, deeper reductions in school spending will now be required in next year’s budget to close the budget gap.” This is expected to allow districts to plan. The governor’s letter continued, “We must close a record $47 billion deficit. Given the magnitude of the problem, every area of state spending, including education, will have to experience reductions.” He said the failure of the legislature to act in November made it unlikely school aid reductions will be considered any time soon. Patterson told the districts that next year state aid is projected to increase by 8.8 percent, a level of funding the state can’t afford. Patterson said he realizes costs are rising and has reduced state spending by 10 percent. He said, “School districts will have to take a similar approach and find ways to reduce costs and improve the efficiency of their operations on behalf of the taxpayers, concluding, I know that together we can weather the storm and help get New York’s fiscal house in order.”
See related story about school mergers in additional stories.


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