Thursday, January 19, 2017

A first look at budgeting for 2017-18

Watervliet student vocalist chosen to sing at State of the State address

First, a shout out to Watervliet High School senior Jessica Vallee who was selected to sing the national anthem a cappella to open the Governor’s State of the State Address at the University of Albany on January 11. She did a tremendous job and made her school and her community proud! You don’t have to take my word for it, you can see (and hear) for yourself, here.

Governor releases his state budget proposal

The state Division of Budget recently released school state aid runs following Governor Cuomo’s presentation outlining his proposed Executive Budget to legislators. The Governor’s proposal includes $1 billion more in aid to schools, an increase of just about 4 percent, which brings the state’s overall investment in education to $25.6 billion for the coming year.

This is a welcome starting point as the state legislature begins its budget negotiations. Still, I have to agree with leading education groups that say the governor’s proposal falls short of the amount needed for many schools to maintain the current level of services and programs offered. The Board of Regents, the Educational Conference Board and the New York State Association of School Business Officials (NYSASBO) all had called for aid to increase in the range of $2 billion.

Closer examination of the governor’s executive budget reveals the different nuances of his proposed billion-dollar increase in funding to education, which includes the following:

  • $428 million in Foundation Aid, which supports everyday school operations; 
  • $333 million in reimbursements for expenses such as transportation, BOCES services, and approved capital projects; 
  • $35 million to expand after-school programs in 16 previously identified high need districts, (Watervliet is not among them); and 
  • an additional $15 million in other educational initiatives, such as the expansion of prekindergarten for 3- and 4-year old children in high need districts and Early College High Schools programs, funding typically awarded through competitive grants.

Also in the proposed increase is $22 million in charter school tuition reimbursement, and $17 million related to financing the Smart Schools Bond Act, which allows districts to invest in newer technologies. There is also mention of a new Fiscal Stabilization Fund totaling $150 million, but no details yet on how those dollars would be dispersed to schools.

What does this mean for Watervliet? While it is still early in the process, right now it appears that under the governor’s proposal, our district would receive a 3.17 percent overall increase in aid, which equals $585,183 in state funding. Of that, $216,572 is foundation aid (an increase of 1.8 percent), while the balance is expense-driven (reimbursement for certain expenditures) or other categorical aid.

On the plus side this year, we get to begin developing our school budget with knowledge of the level of aid we can anticipate to receive from the state, as opposed to last year at this time when the governor withheld this essential information from schools for many weeks while the legislature worked on its state budget proposal.

Another known factor: according to the Office of the State Comptroller, the property tax levy growth for school districts will be capped at 1.26 percent for fiscal year 2017-18, making this the fourth consecutive year that the so-called “2 percent cap" will be less than its name implies. The cap limits the local revenue our district can collect through property taxes. Still, it is better than the 0.12 percent cap, the lowest allowable tax levy growth since the law was enacted in 2012, that we and other school districts had to contend with when developing our 2016-17 budget.

Tuition-free college proposal

Earlier this month, Governor Cuomo announced his plan to provide tuition-free college for students who meet income eligibility requirements and want to attend to any of the state university system’s two- or four-year schools.

Serving as the leader of a district where more than 70 percent of students qualify for free- and reduced-price lunch, my initial reaction was to think how a program like this would benefit many of our students. Having tuition covered would create a significant incentive for students who aspire to pursue a college degree; and it would help remove the financial barriers for students who simply cannot afford the high cost of college.

I have since read conflicting reports on the proposal; some in favor of the free college tuition, with others expressing questions about the cost to taxpayers and lamenting that nothing can really be called “free” when someone else must pick up the tab. Elected officials are known for introducing well-intentioned ideas, but the devil is always in the details.

It also would be helpful if the governor and other state leaders would recognize and remember that public schools provide an important foundation and pipeline to college, and we need equitable funding and appropriate resources to prepare our K-12 students for higher education, whether or not it is tuition free.