Thursday, January 22, 2015

Vliet listed on state fiscal stress report

Last year around this same time, the Office of the State Comptroller (OSC) released its fiscal stress report for school districts and municipalities. You may recall that Watervliet was at the top of the school list.

I recently received the OSC’s fiscal stress report for 2014, and the district is once again on the list with a score of 80 percent, meaning Watervliet is a district in “significant fiscal stress." (Our score for 2013 was 88.3 percent.)

I have blogged about our fiscal stress many times – most recently in November after the comptroller’s office released its fiscal stress audit of district finances.

As is often the case with these types of government reports, this most recent report does not reflect the entire story. It neglects to mention, for example, that by tightening our belts and aligning recurring costs and revenues, the district has eliminated 80 percent of our deficit in one year. We have pursued cost-saving measures, such as shared service agreements with the City of Watervliet for trash removal and a summer school program with the Cohoes City School District, and we will continue to seek opportunities to reduce costs.

Question of revenue

It also fails to explain that ours is not a spending problem, but rather a revenue issue. Our schools are receiving less state aid than we have in the past. The Gap Elimination Adjustment (GEA) has diverted billions of dollars in aid from schools—Watervliet has lost approximately $4 million to the GEA—all so that the state could eliminate its budget deficits.

Meanwhile, it is our students who suffer the consequences. Without sufficient resources, our district has cut teachers and support staff, resulting in larger class sizes in some cases. We have had to eliminate most all extracurricular opportunities—programs that often motivate students to come to school. Thankfully many of these opportunities have been restored, but only through the generosity of the Arsenal Partnership and local donations.

Another significant problem continues to be the lack of equity in the way state funding is distributed, which disproportionately affects high needs districts. In Watervliet, 65 percent of our students are eligible for free and reduced price lunch. We are a high needs district. State funding formulas should take into account community needs and resources, but that is not the case.

At the same time, the state imposed tax levy cap, which limits the amount of revenue districts can collect through property taxes, has made schools even more dependent on state aid. And so, we are caught in a vicious cycle with no escape hatch.

Deprived of adequate resources, it becomes increasingly difficult to meet our basic mission of educating, inspiring and challenging every student, every day.