Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Step 1 to relieve our fiscal stress: end GEA now!

Since becoming superintendent two years ago, I have been very candid about our district’s fiscal challenges. I have spoken about it frequently during budget workshops and presentations, and written about it often in this blog, (even referencing “Education’s fiscal cliff” in a blog posted in November 2012).

In mid-January, the Watervliet school district was thrust into the spotlight after landing at the top of the New York State Comptroller’s Office report of the most fiscally stressed public schools in the state. 

Under the state’s new Fiscal Stress Monitoring System, 87 school districts statewide—or 13 percent—were designated in some level of fiscal stress, which is determined by such financial indicators as year-end fund balance, cash position and patterns of operating deficits.

The comptroller’s report itself garnered widespread media attention around the state, but as you might imagine being named the most fiscally strapped school district in the state resulted in a flurry of interviews and local media reports that gave me an opportunity to offer context about our district’s fiscal pressures.
(Times Union article/Jan. 16 2014, NYSSBA On Board/Feb. 10, 2014, CBS6 Schools in financial distress/Jan. 19, 2014, WTEN Schools in Fiscal Stress Report/Jan. 18, 2014)


How did our school district get here?  


In his press release, NYS Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli acknowledged that, “… reductions in state aid, a cap on local revenue and decreased rainy day funds are creating financial challenges that more and more school districts are having trouble overcoming. My office’s fiscal stress scores highlight the need for school district officials to manage their finances carefully with an eye towards long-range planning and how they can operate more efficiently.”

I agree with Mr. DiNapoli’s assessment—state aid reductions and the tax levy cap have placed significant financial pressure on schools. I would argue, however, that the issue, especially for districts deemed in significant or moderate fiscal stress, is more complicated than merely a need to “manage finances more carefully.” Three factors by and large have brought us to where we are today:
  1. a lack of equitable and adequate state funding; 
  2. the state’s Gap Elimination Adjustment (GEA), which has resulted in a $4 million loss of revenue for Watervliet schools alone over the past four years; and 
  3. an unending barrage of unfunded mandates that schools must comply with, which increase spending.
First, the inequitable disbursement of state aid continues to shortchange small city schools disproportionately. As a result, districts like ours have made many difficult, often unpopular choices to balance our budgets. In Watervliet, we have downsized staff across the board—instructional, support staff and administrator positions alike, in recent years. In some cases, these reductions have led to larger class sizes. We have cut advanced placement courses and summer school programs; eliminated athletic teams (tennis, bowling and modified sports); and offer fewer extracurricular opportunities for students than before.

It is well past time that our state leaders take action and overhaul the school funding system to ensure that schools in small urban communities receive equitable and sufficient funding so that all New York’s children receive a comparable, high-caliber education regardless of their zip code. 

Second, our elected leaders must also eliminate the Gap Elimination Adjustment (GEA), another major fiscal stressor confronting our schools. Enacted by then-Governor David Paterson in 2010, the GEA was supposed to be a temporary fix allowing state government to close its own budget shortfall by reducing the share of Foundation Aid that had been promised to schools across the state. Watervliet has lost approximately $4 million in the past four years because of the GEA, and will lose another $500,000 in 2014-15, if state leaders fail to act.

Now that the state’s economy appears to have turned the corner—the governor says the state has a budget surplus—the time has come to do away with the GEA and restore school funding to levels that enable us to offer the education and opportunities that prepare students to be college and career ready in today’s ultra-competitive global economy.

Finally, the state and/or federal governments regularly enact new mandates that school districts must comply with that encompass many areas of school operations, including instruction, transportation, health and safety. More often than not, however, these new regulations come unfunded, or underfunded, which again drives up the cost of operating schools. While mandates increase accountability, and in many cases, help improve educational quality, implementing them without adequate funding only piles on the fiscal stress that schools face.

Whether or not you have children in our schools, a robust education is vital to the future of both our city and our state. For that reason, it is important that parents, community members, students, teachers and staff alike be informed, be engaged and advocate for our schools! The best way to support Watervliet's schools and students is to contact our elected officials in Albany and urge them to end the state’s Gap Elimination Adjustment, fix the inequities in the school funding system and place a moratorium on new mandates.

Visit our district’s website for information on advocating for your schools. A list of state legislators and their contact information is also available on our site. Get involved today!