Schools hope for help from feds


By David Avitabile

Facing huge decreases in state aid for next year, eight area school superintendents learned last week that help may be coming in the form of the federal stimulus package.
As they get ready to embark on a new budget season, Governor David Paterson has told school districts to expect less state aid for the 2009-10 school year with most districts facing a shortfall of more than $360,000.
A cut of that magnitude, plus salary and other increases could leave huge deficits at area schools. Middleburgh could face a deficit of more than $1 million while the deficit at Schoharie has been estimated at more than $900,000.
The state has a deficit of its own to worry about, State Senator James Seward told school leaders at a meeting with Assemblyman Peter Lopez Thursday afternoon at Schoharie.
The state, Senator Seward said, is facing a $15 billion deficit.
Despite the gloom, there are some positives, Senator Seward told superintendents from all six county schools, plus Berne-Knox and Duanesburg.
“Sometimes it takes a crisis to bring some changes,” Senator Seward said.
For next year, a three percent aid cut is planned but that could be lessened if aid comes to the state by way of a federal stimulus package, Senator Seward said.
Federal funds “may help us to fill the hole” in education funding, he said.
The Senator said he does not see the state budget being completed until officials get word on how much will be coming in a federal stimulus package.
If word comes soon, an April 1 budget “is doable,” he said.
Assemblyman Lopez reminded school officials that the federal stimulus package “is a one-shot.”
No promises were made and school officials were told to plan accordingly.
“We’re in a two-year rough patch,” Senator Seward said.
The following year may not be as severe as the one coming up, the Senator said, adding, “But who knows?”
Assemblyman Lopez suggested that superintendents and business officials do as he did when he was supervisor from the Town of Schoharie, “You always plan for the worst and hope for the best.”
State leaders are under tremendous pressure from groups that face budget cuts, both state officials said.
“No one comes to Albany and asks for less,” Assemblyman Lopez said.
“Everyone says, ‘I know there’s a problem but don’t cut me.’”
Both Senator Seward and Assemblyman Lopez asked district leaders for help as they battle to restore some school funding.
The upcoming budget process is critical and Assemblyman Lopez said the local schools need “an overarching theme.”
Urban and suburban schools band together to ask for help and rural schools need to do the same, he said.
The school leaders were also asked to come up with a list of areas that state leaders can help with mandate relief.
A cap on mandate relief is only a part of the answer, Assemblyman Lopez said.
A cap without increases for energy conservation and sharing between districts only compresses the costs on the local level, he said.
“It’s a good time to deal with the state Education Department,” Senator Seward said. “We do control the purse strings.”
The state’s budget problems cannot be solved by shifting the burden onto the local taxpayers, Senator Seward said.
“We look forward to going to battle for our local school districts,” he added.
As for special education, he said that the state goes beyond the federal regulations and “you’re paying the bill.”
The state and schools have to look at controlling spending to take the pressure off a possible cut in aid, Senator Seward said.
The status quo and doing business as usual cannot continue, Assemblyman Lopez said.
While he sees forcing consolidation for districts with less than 1,000 students as impractical, he does see more use of BOCES services as a way to cut costs.