By Tyler Murphy
VOORHEESVILLE — Governor Andrew Cuomo announced his executive budget last week, proposing a statewide increase in education spending by 4.4 percent, but the plan will cut aid to the Voorheesville School District by 5.9 percent.
The governor said his 2013-14 budget would increase education aid spending in New York by $889 million from last year, with the state spending on average an extra $300 per student.
Of all the school districts in Albany County, Voorheesville saw the greatest percentage drop in its projected aid revenue from last year, but Superintendent Teresa Thayer Snyder said the reduction looks so large because the district had received this year a conversion grant to change kindergarten from half-day to full-day classes.
Without the conversion grant, state aid remains roughly the same as last year, which the superintendent said was actually a loss to the school. She said the district would still have to make cuts before presenting a preliminary budget at next month’s board of education meeting.
As costs such as utilities, healthcare, retirement, and other expenses increase faster than state aid schools have to make up the difference by cutting jobs and programs, reducing salaries, drawing down reserves or raising taxes. However, a new law passed last year limits the amount a school can increase taxes through a state designed formula; the cap can be surpassed with 60 percent of the public vote. The calculation allows for some exemptions and, though Voorheesville complied with the law last year, it still increased taxes just over 2 percent.
Assistant Superintendent for Business Gregory Diefenbach said Voorheesville received about $248,000 in aid to make the transition from half to full-day kindergarten and the governor’s proposed 5.9-percent reduction in aid revenue represented a decrease of about $241,495. The district has a $22 million budget.
“No one else in the county received the extra conversion aid last year; it comes just one time. If our district hadn’t received it, then we would look much more comparable to everyone else,” he said.
Taking the one-time grant out of consideration, Diefenbach said, the district’s aid revenue is about the same as last year. That would still put Voorheesville’s aid well below the average increase for New York’s school districts of 4.4 percent.
However, Voorheesville is not the average school district. Apart from its high graduation rate of just over 98 percent, measurements used by the New York State Department of Education designate Voorheesville as a wealthy district when comparing the income level of those in living the district to others in the state.
Another distinction when comparing Voorheesville’s $21,868,000, budget to other public schools in the area is the amount of state aid it relies upon. Diefenbach said the district’s annual revenue is about 23 percent state aid, 73 percent from local taxes, and about 2 percent from other sources. He said many other schools count on state aid to cover around 60 percent of their revenue costs or more.
Since the school district is considered wealthy by the state, the amount of aid it is eligible for is less than poorer districts.
“These are averages; if you look across the area you’ll see some districts getting less than the average, another getting more. The numbers jump up and down across the board,” said Diefenbach. “The 4.4-percent increase, for example, is an average calculated across all of New York’s schools. Depending on where you are and hearing that it might be a little misleading on what your specific district is expecting.”
Snyder said Voorheesville’s aid had remained stagnant for the last two years.
“People have got to be aware — I’ve been reluctant in past years to say the wolf is at the door,” Snyder said. “We made our cuts and reductions but the wolf is nearing the door now. We can’t keep decimating budgets like this; it’s very stressing to our efforts to create a great educational outcome for our students.”
Some state aid, like that for transportation, is figured on a percentage of money to be spent.
“Because we reduced bus routes, we got less aid,” said Snyder.
When the district expanded its half-day kindergarten classes to full-day classes, the students could travel home on the end-of-day buses. By eliminating the mid-day bus route for kindergartners, the district saved about $62,000, said Diefenbach.
He explained, because the school spent less money on transportation, it was awarded less aid from the state.
“Currently, the state provides 55.6-percent aid on anything we spend on transportation. So, since we reduced our expenses, there’s less aid,” he said.
In total, the district had about $100,000 less in transportation expenses than last year. Besides reducing bus routes, the district also postponed the hiring of a garage mechanic so officials could explore the option of sharing services with neighboring districts in an attempt to save costs.
“We didn’t fill the position at the time because the director of transportation was trying to work with other schools collaboratively to share services. Nothing has really materialized yet but we’re still trying to do that,” said Diefenbach.
Since the job was never filled, the district lost funds that would have compensated for 55.6 percent of the salary.
Though Cuomo’s proposed budget has yet to be passed, Snyder expects, as in the previous year, that the governor’s political clout means most of it will remain intact. Last year, she said, legislators were able to negotiate the release of additional funds for the districts they represented. She said she hopes a similar compromise might be made again this year.
The district is making contact with government representatives in an effort to get more aid, Snyder said.
The board of education will meet Feb. 11 to discuss the district’s preliminary budget.
Diefenbach said the school board plans on adopting a budget by April 8, and the statewide date for voting on school budgets is May 21.
He said it was important for people to remember, “We’re trying to give the best quality education to students in the economic climate we’re living in today.”