The strategies may be different, but area legislators are working together toward a common goal - to obtain more funding for public schools.
State Assemblyman Andrew Goodell, R-Jamestown, and Sen. Cathy Young, R-Olean, are confronting the issue of an inequitable distribution of state aid to schools through separate proposals that would modify Gov. Andrew Cuomo's tentative executive budget.
Since 2011, each of the state's approximately 700 public schools have been operating under their own state-imposed aid reduction in the form of the gap elimination adjustment. In an attempt to close what was a $10 billion budget gap, the state opted to reduce the aid it paid to school districts by imposing the annual aid reduction program.
Since then, the state has claimed fiscal solvency and has been slowly reducing the aid reduction to schools. For those in education, however, this "restoration" of the gap elimination adjustment is not moving fast enough. Many schools are calling for an end to the gap elimination adjustment through any means necessary, while simultaneously trimming expenses in the form of cuts to budgets, programs and teaching positions.
According to Goodell, the state still owes approximately $1.6 billion in funding to schools as a result of the gap elimination adjustment. While Cuomo's proposed executive budget would restore another $323 million to education funding, Goodell said that will not be sufficient enough to help schools endure another year of cuts.
Goodell said he is supportive of a strategy that would reallocate funds which are currently included in the proposed executive budget for low-priority educational items into general core educational funding.
"My objective was to increase school funding by reducing the gap elimination adjustment, and do so without raising taxes," Goodell said. "I had to find where the money was in the existing budget so we could help our schools and their taxpayers get more state aid and get more property tax relief."
The strategy Goodell supports would increase educational funding by $500 million in an effort to reduce the impact of the gap elimination adjustment, with the expectation that the gap elimination adjustment would be entirely eliminated within the next two years. The additional $500 million would be obtained from two sources within the governor's existing budget proposal.
First, Goodell is calling for a transfer of $400 million from the proposed property tax cap reimbursement program to school aid. The governor's proposed tax cap program would reimburse taxpayers in those school districts that stay below the 2 percent tax cap for any increase to their tax levies, but would provide no financial assistance to taxpayers in districts that are facing the most serious financial problems.
"One of the unexpected negative side effects (of the tax cap reimbursement program) is that the state would pay a municipality to increase its taxes up to the cap," he said. "So, even if a municipality didn't want to increase taxes at all, they could still take advantage of this program for the benefit of their own pet projects. The second problem is this would reward the wealthier districts, who could afford to stay below the tax cap, at the expense of the poorer districts who need to raise taxes in order to avoid a fiscal crisis."
The second source of funds would be the allocation of $100 million from money designated for universal pre-kindergarten into general school aid. Goodell said that, while universal pre-kindergarten is a positive program, providing schools with funding solely for that purpose does not serve the needs and priorities of all schools.
"Rather than require schools to use all of this money for UPK, I thought it made more sense to give this money to schools as general aid for use in their highest priorities," he said. "Rather than allowing Albany to dictate how local school districts have to use their money, my belief is that local school boards are much more knowledgeable in the needs of local school districts, and much more capable of using that money wisely."
KILL THE GEA
Young is taking her fight straight to the source, announcing this week that she and other Senate Republicans are calling on Assembly speaker Sheldon Silver to eliminate the gap elimination adjustment entirely.
"The Senate Republicans have been leading the charge to get rid of the gap elimination adjustment, which is consistently cited by school districts as their No. 1 priority in this year's state budget," Young said in a press release earlier in the week. "The clock is ticking, and we need partners to eliminate the gap elimination adjustment in the final budget, which is due in just a couple of days. If the Assembly Democrats do not step up to the plate soon, our schools will be harmed by their lack of support."
Young said the Senate's budget resolution allocated eight times more funding for the termination of the gap elimination adjustment than was included in the Assembly majority's resolution, and double the amount in the governor's proposal.
"The Senate Republicans have a concrete plan to fully phase out the gap elimination adjustment. Unfortunately, the Assembly majority is unwilling to stand with us," she said.
Goodell said he is much more favorable of the Senate's budget resolution than that of the Assembly majority.
"The Assembly majority is pushing very hard for an increase in foundation aid, and is also pushing for much higher funding for UPK," Goodell said. "The Senate is pushing as hard as they can to eliminate the gap elimination adjustment, and I support the Senate's approach; because the majority (proposal) is much more New York City-centric, whereas the Senate's proposal would benefit schools statewide."
The state's executive budget must be passed by Monday in order to meet the Tuesday deadline for an on-time budget.