If the single house budget bills coming out of the New York State Senate and Assembly last week are any indication, Chautauqua County public schools are about to be shortchanged ... again. Despite rhetoric from politicians about getting rid of the Gap Elimination Adjustment (GEA) as quickly as possible, there is scant evidence of such an effort from the governor or either house in the Legislature. To add insult to injury, there are a flurry of proposals for brand new educational programs (for both schools and taxpayers) at the very time that all available resources are desperately needed to support basic educational funding - i.e. direct aid to school districts.
When the recession hit at the end of 2008 and the beginning of 2009 it hurt everyone. Schools had just been promised two years before that they would be placed on track to receive more equitable funding as a result of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) lawsuit, but the state's dire financial straits ground that effort to a halt. The promised funds were frozen, and then cut. The cuts were formalized by the legislature in the Gap Elimination Adjustment (GEA), which became ongoing. The gap to be closed was the deficit in the state budget. Sadly, the GEA helped solidify the inequitable distribution of school aid that the CFE lawsuit sought to end.
One could easily argue that the state balanced its budget on the backs of school children. Just looking at the four years of GEA alone, the impact is striking. Chautauqua County districts have lost over $86 million in state aid. Cattaraugus County districts have lost a comparable amount. If you take our two counties and add the handful of districts from Erie County that are part of Erie-2-Chautauqua-Cattaraugus BOCES, the cumulative deductions over the past four years exceed $270 million. To put that in perspective, that figure approximately equals the entire accumulated total for Jamestown Public School (JPS) budgets over that same four-year period, and Jamestown is one of the largest districts in the Southern Tier! All together, the state has removed $8 billion from public schools statewide in the past four years.
The effects have been crippling. Districts began to cut programs and staff in ways that jeopardized instruction. Reserve funds were drained. And we were lean before the cuts even started. Per-pupil educational costs in our part of the state are already about 15 percent under the state average. In Jamestown alone we have cut more than 100 positions. Our elementary schools no longer have full-time librarians, our Suzuki String program was eliminated, and we shifted art and music K-8 from once a week to once every eight days. Foreign language is only taught every other day in the middle schools and both the variety of languages and the upper years of instruction in those languages have disappeared in the high school (to highlight just some of the impact).
Those us of who work in schools have watched the dramatic decline in funding and the consequent negative impacts with considerable dismay. What frustrates us beyond belief is that we are told the state has finally eliminated its deficit, yet money is still being taken away from all of us in the form of the GEA. Jamestown's total proposed state aid allocation for next year still sits below what we received from the state six years ago. And property taxpayers simply cannot make up the difference. In low or even average wealth districts, state aid is a significant proportion of the overall budget. At JPS, state aid accounts for 70 percent of our revenue. Our projected expenses for next year rise by only 1.7 percent, but we face a $2.6 million funding gap. Total elimination of the GEA would shrink that gap by more than $1 million. Jamestown does not have an expense problem; we have a revenue problem.
Albany treats schools as just another constituency, rather than as an essential service. When funding for schools is shortchanged, it isn't just children who are hurt, it's the entire community. Consider this analogy: I must build a road to the future for each of my students. Early on we switch from concrete to asphalt - it doesn't last as long, but it's cheaper. As resources shrink, I lay off 10 percent of my crew and reduce the hours for those who remain on my payroll. Although the traffic projections would accommodate six to eight lanes, we agree to build just four. Cuts continue. We abandon the four-lane concept and switch to a two-lane road. (I remind my funders this may mean long delays for travelers and some may never reach their destination.) Now, just as we need more dollars to build on a pretty steep incline (and around a couple of mountains), my budget is reduced again. This time the state wants to take some of my budget so that they can build amenities like parks and shopping malls along a road I am still struggling to construct.
It's not right, and it certainly isn't fair to the students of Chautauqua County.
Mains is the superintendent of Jamestown Public Schools.