Cuomo budget leaves school officials guessing

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 5 February 2015 at 12:00 am

Governor didn’t include aid runs for each school district

Photos by Tom Rivers – The front entrance to the Ronald L. Sodoma Elementary School in Albion includes giant crayons with guiding principles such as a “Loyalty.”

School leaders across the state in January usually are given some sense of what their state aid will be for the following school year.

The governor presents a budget in January and that document includes “runs” for each school district, the projected state aid for the following year. Usually during budget negotiations the State Legislature will push for an education funding increase over the governor’s numbers.

So the governor’s proposal typically is a worst-case scenario.

This time there are no numbers from the governor for the 2015-16 school year, which local school officials say makes preparing their budgets a greater challenge.

“Withholding of state aid figures is truly unprecedented and very disappointing as it places school districts in a very tough spot as we continue to be held to all of the deadlines established by the state with respect to local budgets but we are also unaware of our state revenue projections,” said Robert D’Angelo, superintendent at Holley Central School.

D’Angelo and the Board of Education will work on a 2015-16 budget, assuming the district’s state aid will be unchanged. If there is an increase for Holley through the state budget process, D’Angelo said district leaders will discuss how to apply an increase in state aid, if there is one. Holley also will reach out to local state legislators for their help in getting solid data from the state.

The governor and State Legislature have passed four straight on-time budgets after a generation of late budgets, some not getting approved into the summer, long after the April 1 state budget deadline.

Michael Bonnewell, Albion’s school superintendent, remembers when districts had to prepare budgets based on “guesstimates” from the state.

“It’s like the old days,” Bonnewell said.

Cuomo is pushing for changes in teacher evaluations, and he is using the state budget to pressure the Legislature to go along with his proposal.

Cuomo wants state assessments to count 50 percent towards a teacher’s evaluation. Currently, those tests account for 20 percent of the teacher’s score.

He has proposed a 1.7 percent education funding increase if the Legislature does not approve the teacher evaluation changes, and a 4.8 percent increase if the changes are adopted. He hasn’t released data for individual districts, as was done in the past.

Bonnewell said districts can’t assume a 1.7 percent increase as a worst-case scenario because Cuomo ties some of that increase to grants, which are not given uniformly to all districts. Bonnewell said there may be a chance some districts will see an overall aid drop.

Holley Central School recently completed renovations at the junior-senior high school.

The 2014-15 state budget gave the five school districts in Orleans County – Albion, Holley, Kendall, Lyndonville and Medina – a 5.1 percent increase, from $65.98 million to $69.33 million.

Jeff Evoy, Medina Central School superintendent, sent a letter to the governor last week, saying the district has been put in an “impossible” position as it tries to craft a responsible and effective budget.

Evoy said the governor’s aid numbers are a critical piece of the budget process. The district’s audit and finance committee uses that data to develop the budget with input from school stakeholders.

“This vital process cannot proceed, however, without an expected state aid distribution baseline, as we are left without enough information to predict revenue for the upcoming year,” Evoy said.

Lyndonville will work on a school budget, knowing the district may not get a state aid increase. Jason Smith, the district superintendent, said Lyndonville could use some reserves and fund balance to make up for static state aid. The district will work towards a budget with “minimal increases” to the local taxpayers, Smith said.

Smith has some doubts about the governor’s push to have assessments count 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation, mainly because not every teacher has students who are tested that way.

Right now, the standardized tests from grades 3 through 8 Math and ELA count towards teacher evaluations.

“How is he going to account for every other teacher in districts that do not teach 3-8 Math or ELA?” Smith asked. “Furthermore, the 3-8 tests in math and ELA were never designed to be viewed as pass/fail type tests, but rather, a tool that districts can use to gauge student progress toward meeting the Common Core standards.”

Smith said he doesn’t favor the governor’s push to make the tests count so heavily on a teacher’s evaluation.

“I do not support it because of the sheer fact that is not comprehensive and lacks details, and really, the research is very unclear as to how much weight should be attributed to student scores in overall teacher evaluations,” Smith said.

State aid accounts for 60 percent of the Kendall Central School budget. The district wants to go to work on the 2015-16 school budget but “we can’t responsibly develop a budget or involve our communities in a process which could be based on faulty assumptions,” said Julie Christensen, the Kendall school superintendent.

Julie Christensen

Kendall has seen a $5.5 million reduction in state aid through a Gap Elimination Adjustment since 2008. The district, and others in the state, have pushed the governor and State Legislature to restore that funding. Many districts were forced to tap reserves, lay off staff and cut programs due to the funding cuts.

“It is time for the governor and our legislators to address this inequity and fully fund our schools,” Christensen said. “It’s their constitutional obligation.”

The governor and Legislature also passed a tax cap in 2011. School districts use the governor’s aid projections to formulate our tax cap calculation and the proposed tax levy is due to the state by March 1, Christensen said.

“It is impossible to establish a proposed tax levy without having a clear sense of our projected state aid,” she said.

Christensen sounded some of the same concerns raised by Smith of Lyndonville, in regards to the teacher evaluation proposal from the governor. Christensen said 70 percent of Kendall teachers do not receive a state growth score.

The remaining 70 percent of staff, according to the governor’s proposals, would receive a score that measures one year of academic growth, Christensen said. “How do you measure one year of growth in physical education, art, music?” she said.

Most districts in the state already had “rigorous, thoughtful, productive teacher evaluation systems” in place, Christensen said, long before Race to The Top and the mandated Annual Professional Performance Review process. New York City did not have those standards in place, she said.

“To hold all school districts hostage to disingenuous evaluation standards that does not support staff, students and administrators is incredulous!” she said by email. “Teachers are not numbers!! They are dedicated, committed, hardworking professionals and should be treated as such by our Governor, the State Education Department and others in political positions.”

She called Cuomo’s Opportunity Agenda “a travesty to the education profession on many levels.”