As the May 15 vote nears on the Peekskill City School District’s $74,325,932 budget for the 2012-13 school year, which begins July 1, Patch reporter Jeff Canning sat down with Superintendent of Schools James Willis May 8 to review for Patch readers how the spending plan was developed, the impact of the 2 percent cap on the district tax levy, the computation of state aid, new directions in education and where the district goes from here. Following is the second half of a summary of their two-hour discussion. Please click here to read the first half.
State aid: Giving with one hand, taking with the other.
The annual state ritual begins with the amounts proposed for each school district in the governor’s budget around the beginning of the calendar year. The state Legislature traditionally adds to the governor’s dollar amounts. The end result for Peekskill for 2012-13 was $29,234,914, up $480,653, or 1.7 percent, from this year’s $28,754,261.
However, Peekskill lost $4.1 million in additional aid that was pulled back by the state under the Gap Elimination Adjustment (GEA) to balance the state budget.
“New York State balances its budget at the expense of the school districts,” Willis said, adding that foundation aid has been frozen since 2008. Since then, through the GEA, the state has been legally circumventing its constitutional obligations regarding school funding.
“Without the GEA we would not have to worry about budget cuts.”
Hussein et al. v. State of New York.
In this case, now in its third year, parents and students from 13 low-wealth districts are suing the state over the amount and allocation of state aid. The case has the backing of the New York State Association of Small City School Districts Inc., of which Peekskill is a member. It has reached the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest tribunal, on procedural matters and could go to trial by the end of 2012. Lower courts have ruled against the state.
Districts in this area represented by the plaintiffs include Beacon, Middletown, Newburgh, and Poughkeepsie as well as Utica, where Willis was superintendent before assuming the top post in Peekskill in July 2011.
“It is critically important that this case go forward,” said Willis, noting that higher-wealth districts in this area received higher percentage increases in aid than Peekskill, even though the dollar amounts may have been lower. Those districts are less concerned about the GEA and unfunded or underfunded state mandates because the tax levy is their bread and butter. But Peekskill and other low-wealth districts don’t have the tax levy to make up those differences; they need that aid, he said.
“[Gov. Andrew] Cuomo wants higher educational standards. Then give us the tools, which cost money, which makes a difference,” Willis said.
Mandate relief sought.
Peekskill has joined a growing protest against unfunded and underfunded state and federal mandates that drive up the cost of education for school district taxpayers. Such mandates, totaling about 150, are not all bad but they cost money, about 20 percent of the average budget, and their requirements can consume a sizable amount of staff time, Willis said. He and Gloria Colucci, superintendent of the Garrison Union Free School District, are the Putnam/Northern Westchester Board of Cooperative Educational Services’ representatives to the state Mandate Relief Council.
Peekskill drew down its reserve funds to help close the gap in the 2012-13 budget, which includes an unappropriated fund balance of about $3 million, or 4 percent of the budget, the maximum permitted by law. The unappropriated balance provides “rainy day” money for unanticipated expenses, such as a spike in the number of special-education students in 2011-12 that cost the district an unplanned $1.5 million. The fund balance is one factor affecting the determination of the district’s creditworthiness by bond rating agencies such as Moody’s, which in turn affects the amount the district must pay to borrow money.
Consultant Charles A. Winters told the board in April that the district could not indefinitely rely on fund balances to close budget gaps and outlined a three-year scenario to restore equilibrium by reducing overall spending $700,000 each year—by eliminating the equivalent of nine full-time positions each year. …
Contracts with all six of Peekskill’s bargaining units expire June 30. Willis hopes the unions will be willing to follow his lead in forgoing a salary increase in 2012-13. …
Willis said he would like to see the federal government cover 40 percent of the cost of special education, as originally planned, although the amount has never topped 25 percent. He added that every special education student has different needs and that it is often less expensive to send a student to a program outside the district than to try to replicate the program in the district. …
In efforts to increase the district’s income, Willis hopes to see an expanded fundraising role for the Peekskill Education Foundation, an increased effort to obtain grants and a communitywide push for more aid from the state.
“We worked long and hard on this budget, meeting educational needs now and laying the groundwork for the future,” Willis said. “It is critical for the community to rally in critical times.”