KINGSBURY — School officials and legislators are expressing uncertainty and angst about education funding in the state budget, as New York is facing a potential $4 billion deficit.
“We’ve got a long road to haul, and every time I turn the TV on, it’s another bad message and I turn it off,” said Beverly Ouderkirk, a member of the state Board of Regents, at a legislative breakfast on Friday.
The event was held at Washington-Saratoga-Warren-Hamilton-Essex BOCES Southern Adirondack Education Center in Kingsbury.
Among the priorities for educators are to update the school funding formula to take into account increased poverty in the area; to fix permanently the issue that makes it more expensive for small districts to buy health insurance; boost the amount of aid for BOCES instructors; and increase the threshold for small capital projects.
Queensbury Superintendent Douglas Huntley said education advocates want the state to implement fully the Foundation Aid formula, which awards aid to districts on a per-pupil basis, through a formula that includes income and property values.
Huntley said the formula has not been updated since it was created for the 2007-08 school year. Circumstances have changed during that time.
“All of the districts in the BOCES have experienced an increase in free- and reduced-price lunch participation, some more than others,” he said.
Districts want to reduce the income wealth index, which sets an artificial floor that caps the amount of aid that can be received, regardless of how poor the district is compared to others in the state.
Huntley said local districts want the Legislature to include a “hold harmless” provision, to make sure their aid would not decrease under the new formula.
Another priority includes increasing the amount districts are reimbursed for BOCES teachers. That amount was set at $30,000 in 1992 and has not been raised since, according to Hartford Superintendent Andrew Cook, who along with Huntley is co-chairman of the Chief School Officers advisory committee.
The average salary for a BOCES instructor is around $65,000, according to Cook.
The third priority is something that affects Hartford and other small school districts. Under the Affordable Care Act, the definition of what constitutes a small group for health insurance changed from groups between 1 and 50 employees to groups between 51 and 100 employees.
Under the ACA, small groups are not allowed to participate in an experience-rated plan, which takes into account the health of the members, but are required to go to a community-rated plan.
Hartford joins other districts in the BOCES in a health insurance consortium.
“If we were forced out of the consortium and into a community-rated program, we would see upwards of an increase of $300,000 to $400,000 in health insurance costs,” he said.
The Legislature has provided temporary fixes, but Cook said schools want to be absolved from this requirement once and for all.
The fourth priority is to increase the threshold for what is defined as a small capital project from $100,000 to $250,000.
These are projects districts are allowed to undertake without voter referendums and involve items like fixing roofs and other preventative maintenance, Huntley said.
The increased threshold would better reflect the cost of these projects, he said.
Hadley-Luzerne Superintendent Beecher Baker was pessimistic.
“It’s not looking good. It’s doom and gloom from the governor. We’ll wait and see,” he said.
Sen. Elizabeth Little, R-Queensbury, said school districts did well last year with aid and she hopes they can at least maintain that. She said it’s difficult to change the way state aid is distributed.
“Anytime you fix formula, there are winners and losers,” she said.
Some average-needs districts do not qualify for as much aid because of their tax base, she said.
Assemblyman Dan Stec, R-Queensbury, said it is too early to get a sense of how much aid this area might get. He expressed the wish there were a way to take politics out of education funding and provide multiyear aid figures for districts.
“You want to make it predictable. That would be ideal,” he said.
Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner, D-Round Lake, said she is working to have the formula take into account school districts that are property-rich, such as Salem with its farms, but poor in income.
“The school aid formula does not appropriately recognize poverty in rural communities,” she said.