Aid ain’t what it used to be for North Fork schools

To hear Albany legislators tell it, school aid funds restored in the recently approved budget have brought state contributions to local districts within striking distance of historic figures. But without counting the federal stimulus money schools received last year, which they knew wouldn’t be renewed, overall state aid is below last year’s.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo had called for an 11 percent cut in state aid to Suffolk schools, but the budget deal struck last week leaves most districts with about 9 percent less.

“I’m glad we got something,” said Greenport Superintendent Michael Comanda, whose district will receive $1.12 million in state aid. That’s about $550,000 less than this year. The governor’s budget had originally called for a $1.071 million in state aid. With the legislative restoration, Greenport gets back $52,959 Mr. Cuomo would have eliminated.

“We’ll make the best of it,” Mr. Comanda said. “But we’re still going to be struggling without those funds.”

He will apply $32,000 of the restored money to reduce the tax rate for next year. Another $20,000 will be put in a repair reserve fund for building maintenance. Taxpayers will be asked in May to approve the repair reserve fund with an initial contribution of $50,000. Greenport’s budget will likely raise spending by 1.7 percent over the current $13.83 million outline.

Mattituck-Cutchogue Superintendent James McKenna is bothered by what he perceives to be the disproportionate cuts Long Island schools are absorbing this year. It starts with a faulty school aid formula that’s based on property values not reflective of residents’ incomes, compounded by the amount both the governor and legislature have cut, he said.

“We’re willing to bear our share,” he said. “But that’s not how it’s working out.”

His district can now expect $2.59 million in state aid, up from $2.52 million in the governor’s budget. The governor would have cut $416,298. Even with the legislature’s aid restorations, Mattituck’s will lose $351,963.

Mr. McKenna refers to the restored $64,335 as “these crumbs,” and said he made a slight adjustment to reflect the difference in anticipated revenue. But it’s not enough to offset an anticipated hike, which he estimated in March would amount to about $126 in taxes for the average household assessed at $600,000.

While Mr. McKenna calls it the lowest tax rate increase in 37 years, it still amounts to a 2.53 percent tax hike to cover the proposed $37.5 million budget.

The Mattituck budget still calls for laying off 13 employees, mostly at Cutchogue East Elementary School, before September.

The only good news is that after all the discussion about state aid, barring an unforeseen catastrophe, Mr. McKenna believes he can count on receiving all of the promised aid. In the past two years, there have been threats of mid-year cuts and even delays in receiving checks from the state.

“It’s better to know this is what it is than to be kept in the dark until August,” Southold Superintendent David Gamberg said about the on-time state budget. By law, a new state budget is to be in place by April 1.

But the $38,915 the legislature restored, which brings Southold’s aid package to $1.56 million, won’t make a dent in his budget planning. The governor’s plan represented an approximate $230,000 cut in state aid, so the restoration still leaves the district short $200,000 below last year’s revenue.

Even so, Mr. Gamberg is celebrating the state’s abandoning plans to pass the cost of summer school for special education students on to local districts. That’s a mandated program, he said.

The Southold school board is looking at a $26.39 million spending plan for next year, representing a 2.78 percent increase in spending. If the numbers aren’t pared down further, Southold taxpayers would be looking at a tax rate increase of 2.42 percent.
In proposing that his own salary be frozen at $175,000 for the second time in his three years in the district, Mr. Gamberg said it’s important that money is spent to assure students’ success.

In Oysterponds, where the district would have received only $295,620 under the governor’s proposal, the legislature’s action brings in only $966 more. It clearly won’t have any impact on budgeting, according to acting superintendent/principal Joan Frisicano.

The administration and school board are still reworking budget numbers, aiming to keep the new tax levy at no more than 2 percent above this year’s level.

As of last week, the plan called for spending of $5.77 million, a 2.7 percent increase. The district has close to $1 million in reserves, well above the 4 percent allowed by New York State. Some of that money will be applied to next year’s budget with more put into reserves for specific uses.

The danger in applying too much of the reserves to lowering taxes is that money wouldn’t be available to offset unexpected costs and that could result in a spike in taxes down the road, board members said.

Still outstanding due to ongoing negotiations is the amount teachers’ salaries might rise next year.

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