The budget situation for school districts appears to have gone from bad to worse. Or, as Fulton Superintendent of Schools Bill Lynch put it: “Bleak.”
Lynch and other school superintendents are in the midst of planning budgets for the next school year. Those budgets will be voted on in May, during the annual statewide school budget voting day.
Some of the planning is, in fact, educated guesswork. Because there’s no guarantee that the state Legislature will approve a budget by the April 1 deadline — just 6 weeks before the school budget vote — districts are often forced to guess at how much state aid will fill their budgets. The guesswork is helped by guidance from the state Education Department and from state legislators, but it’s a guess nonetheless.
“We’re trying to put together a fiscally responsible budget,” Lynch said. “But we’re also working with a lot of unknowns.”
Until now, Fulton officials have worked on the assumption that aid to the district from the state will be about the same in the 2010-11 school year as it is this year. Combined with an expectation of lower aid from the federal government, sharply higher state retirement fund costs and higher costs for salaries and benefits, early drafts of the budget have shown a need for significant increases in the tax levy.
The most recent working draft of the budget requires a tax increase of just under 7%. District officials said two weeks ago when this draft was discussed that an increase of that size was unacceptable and significant cuts would have to be made to bring down the tax hike.
Over the weekend, however, things changed. School officials from around the region met in Onondaga County Saturday for a breakfast meeting with their state legislators. At the same time, a publication sent to school board members arrived, containing a commentary from the leader of Democrats in the state Legislature, Sheldon Silver. The message from both was clear: Expect cuts in state aid to schools.
“It’s not a surprise, but it’s rather troubling,” said Lynch.
He said districts have not been given specifics about the size of cuts. “We’ll have to be patient,” Lynch said. He expects that any cut in aid this year will stay in place for the following year.
At the same time, Board of Education vice president Robbin Griffin met with federal officials as part of a lobbying trip on behalf of the district.
“I didn’t come away feeling there was much to hope for in terms of federal support,” Griffin said.
The new federal aid program called Race To The Top is based on grant applications and the amount of money available for the entire country is fairly small, she said. She does not expect New York State schools to see much of that money, at least in the first round of grants, which will cover all of the upcoming school year.
“It’s not the answer” to the district’s financial issues, she said.