DUNKIRK - Dr. Rick Timbs, executive director of the Statewide School Finance Consortium, spoke to area school board members about their budgets and reductions in state aid Wednesday night and said, "This isn't going to work."
Speaking at the Chautauqua County School Board Association meeting at Shorewood Country Club in Dunkirk, Timbs said the way state funding is distributed isn't fair to poor school districts like those found in Western New York, and budget cuts aren't sustainable for area districts.
Districts continually face three choices, according to Timbs: to cut programs, cut staff and spend money from the district's unappropriated fund balance, which is put in place to manage emergencies and maintain cash flow.
Area school board members listed to Dr. Rick Timbs speak about budget issues at a Chautauqua County School Board Association meeting Wednesday night.
Photo by Shirley Pulawski
State aid is given to schools in wealthy and poor districts, according to Timbs. In school districts in which the average wealth is eight times the wealth in the local area, state aid is still issued. Data provided by Timbs shows state aid cuts have a greater negative impact on lower wealth districts.
"The state says they're being equal (about aid distribution), but we don't want equality, we want equity," he said.
Other data provided by Timbs suggests the disparity in the budget results in higher taxes for district taxpayers to replace lost aid.
He also said some districts are overpaid according to the formula set by the state, but districts are not asked to pay back over payments. He said he spoke with several state senators earlier in the week who were not aware of overpayments which Timbs said he calculated using state figures.
Many low-wealth districts are resorting to tapping into reserve funds annually, which he said are difficult to replace and some schools may become insolvent in two to four years. He provided a chart which showed the majority of school districts in the entire state with low wealth ratios would deplete their reserve funds within four years.
"Little if any reserves will remain. It is unclear how districts will be able to continue with such aid cuts," he said.
Timbs told board members present at the meeting school district mergers are only a temporary solution.
"After a while, the district ends up right back where they started pre-merger," financially, he explained.
Under a hypothetical scenario, Timbs merged 58 school districts into 28 on paper, based on tax and population rates in the states, using numbers from real districts. He calculated the schools cost would "total a whole year's increases," so the cost, he said, would not be reduced to taxpayers.
Chautauqua County school districts lost, without building aid, more than $14.7 million between the 2008-09 and 2012-13 school years, according to materials provided by Timbs. While every district in the county lost aid, Dunkirk, Falconer, Panama and Southwestern districts all lost more than $1 million each.
Timbs claimed poor school districts, with wealth ratios at or below the state average, spent more per student and collected more taxes, but lost more reserves, lost more cash on hand and reserves and lost more students, despite cutting staff and programs.