By Zachary Matson, Gazette Reporter
Money owed to school districts from cuts made during the economic downturn has turned into a political football at the beginning of the legislative session and is causing heartburn for superintendents entering their budget season.
Elected officials have long said they want to end the Gap Elimination Adjustment, GEA, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo made a similar pronouncement during his State of the State address last week.
But in the executive budget he unveiled at the time, Cuomo called for a twoyear phaseout of the remaining GEA — around $440 million. The GEA was instituted during the tight budget years of the economic downturn and resulted in the state taking back money from districts considered lowneed.
|District||Outstanding GEA||Amount restored in Gov's proposal|
|South Glens Falls||$710,671||$266,010|
Senate Republicans have voted to end the GEA this budget year.
In the districtbydistrict breakdown of how much of the GEA funds would be restored in the governor’s budget, some districts would receive less than onethird of their outstanding dollars.
Shenendehowa schools, for example, are owed nearly $2.6 million in GEA funds; they would get just over $830,000 back under the governor’s budget. Saratoga Springs schools would get less than 32 percent of the over $2 million they are owed.
Those largely affluent districts were also offered minimal increases in Foundation Aid in the governor’s budget. With a tax cap projected to be near zero, restricting their ability to raise revenue through local taxes, and the proposed state aid — Foundation Aid and GEA restoration — increases of around 1 percent, some district leaders are concerned they will struggle to meet annual cost increases and be forced to consider program cuts.
Christine Crowley, superintendent of the Duanesburg Central School District, said she was disappointed with the governor’s proposal, which increased Duanesburg’s Foundation Aid 0.3 percent and slashed its $261,000 GEA account by $96,000.
“Not a lot of companies with a $15 million budget could survive on an annual increase of $30,000,” Crowley said of the district’s budgetplanning. “Not with all the programs we are mandated to have and getting kids ready to go on to college.”
Some superintendents also said they were surprised by the governor’s proposal when it came out last week, expecting a more aggressive pursuit of ending the outstanding GEA funds.
“We weren’t really expecting we would be looking at serious budget [constraints],” Burnt HillsBallston Lake Superintendent Patrick McGrath said. “All the messages we were getting was the gap would be eliminated, we would budget conservatively at 1.5 percent [increase] and we would be where we need to be at.”
Burnt Hills would get just over $290,000 of the over $920,000 they have in outstanding GEA funds, under the governor’s budget proposal.
The Republicancontrolled Senate is still sending those messages. In one of the first votes of the year, Senate Republicans, joined by more than a few Democrats, passed a bill that would take the GEA down to $0 in this year’s budget. And some Republicans have said they won’t approve a budget that doesn’t do the same.
“I want it done this year and we will fight this year, and I will not support a budget if 100 percent of the GEA is not eliminated,” said Sen. George Amedore Jr., RRotterdam. “Schools can’t wait two years, they are already at wit’s end.”
Any increases to the underlying money spent on education will also have to walk the tightrope between paying back the GEA dollars to mostly lowerneed districts and boosting Foundation Aid spending, which benefits highneed districts like Schenectady.
Amedore said the GEA needs to be ended before lawmakers can turn their attention to formula revisions and serious funding increases in Foundation Aid.
“I think we can eliminate [GEA] in one year; I think we should eliminate it one year, and I think we can do more for education with Foundation Aid,” said Sen. Hugh Farley, RNiskayuna. “I think you will see additional money spent for education.”
Reach Gazette reporter Zachary Matson at 3953120, email@example.com or @zacharydmatson on Twitter