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Superintendents sound off on governor’s budget proposal

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Only three schools in the north country are looking at cuts in state aid in the governor’s executive budget proposal presented Tuesday.

However, as district superintendents work on their 2013-14 school budgets, many are still unhappy the state continues to take money directly out of school aid to offset the state’s deficit.

Copenhagen, Colton-Pierrepont and Clifton-Fine central schools were the only districts in the north country that saw cuts in the governor’s budget proposal.

“We were hoping to restore some programs that have been cut the past few years, but with the loss in State Aid, that does not look possible,” Copenhagen Superintendent Scott N. Connell said in an email.

The district was restored $122,725 after $436,845 was taken out of the proposal in order to offset the state’s deficit.

Building aid also was a factor in the district’s proposed loss in aid.

“The way state aid runs, our total aid went down $192,000, but take building aid out, it went up $181,000 — building aid was considerably higher due to our building project being finished and we’re starting to repay,” Mr. Connell said. “Bottom line is, we’re losing 2.58 percent from last year, but it’s not all operating aid that we’re losing.”

Colton-Pierrepont Superintendent Joseph A. Kardash said he was surprised to see a 3.5 percent drop in aid when he looked at the governor’s proposal.

“This is not the 4.4 percent increase that Governor Cuomo described in his speech today,” he said in an email Tuesday. “An overall aid loss of $84,481 is tough when we just projected an increase of about $475,000 in (Employees Retirement System), (Teachers Retirement System), Social Security, health insurance, (Board of Cooperative Educational Services) and projected salaries. We will have to sharpen our pencils and try to find other savings where we can.”

Clifton-Fine interim Superintendent Susan O. Shene was not available for comment.

South Jefferson Central School District Superintendent Jamie A. Moesel said she was most encouraged by the gap elimination adjustment restoration of $452,944, which cushioned the district’s initial gap adjustment cut of $2,579,194.

Not counting building aid, the district is proposed to get $17,124,362 in aid for 2013-14, a 3.74 percent increase from the $16,507,481 it received the previous year.

Mrs. Moesel said receiving the partial reimbursement on the large cut was a “mixed blessing.”

“It’s an interesting dilemma to be in,” she said.

Mrs. Moesel said she also liked seeing the governor introduce some talks about funding for the 2014-15 school year, since about three-fourths of the district’s funding comes from the state.

“It’s extremely important to know those numbers and to be able to project that over time,” Mrs. Moesel said.

Although budget figures indicate Canton Central School District will receive a 9.9 percent increase in state aid, Superintendent William A. Gregory cautioned that the financial picture is still grim.

“We are facing some challenges that are not being faced by other districts,” Mr. Gregory said. “Potentially, we could still be facing significant program and staff reductions.”

“It’s not reflecting our excess costs for special education,” Mr. Gregory said, noting the actual increase will be less than 9.8 percent.

This year’s gap adjustment will cost the district $1.8 million. Two years ago, the assessment cost the district $2.4 million, followed by $2.1 million last year.

Making up for that shortfall will be difficult for Canton, which has cut nearly 50 faculty and staff jobs over the past two years.

Lobbying efforts to get the state to change its state aid formula went unanswered.

“It doesn’t appear our efforts had a direct effect on budget calculations,” Mr. Gregory said.

Another district with a significant increase in aid but little wiggle room in its budget is St. Lawrence Central, Brasher Falls.

“That’s the essence of our increase in operating aid. That’s about 3 percent,” said Superintendent Stephen M. Putman, referring to the gap elimination adjustment restoration of $365,792. “That’s good. It’s not fantastic. It’s not wonderful.”

Mr. Putman said the district is projecting retirement contributions to increase $267,000, health insurance to increase $351,000 and salaries, which are being negotiated, to increase roughly 2 percent, or $125,000. BOCES spending also is expected to increase by $75,000.

Those increases alone total $818,000.

“If you have a 3 percent tax levy increase, that gives us $133,00,” Mr. Putman said.

LaFargeville Central School District Superintendent Susan L. Whitney said her district’s school aid has not recovered to levels before the statewide aid freeze five years ago. However, the extra $133,638 the district is expected to get is a “good start.”

The additional funds will offset general increases in the 2013-14 budget and allow LaFargeville to give its teachers — who opted for smaller raises in 2010 and a pay freeze in 2011 to avoid layoffs — their contractual 4.2 percent pay increases this coming school year.

Nearby, Thousand Islands Central School District Superintendent Frank C. House said the state aid figures released Tuesday do not factor in the extra funds secured last year by state Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, and Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa, for north country school districts.

In other words, the additional $228,974 in school aid the state says it will give Thousand Islands in the 2013-14 school year would be closer to $100,000 after factoring in the money secured by state representatives in 2012, Mr. House said.

“We’re still working on the numbers to extrapolate what we actually gained,” he said.

Carthage Central School District’s business manager, Amy M. Marrocco, did not have anything bad to say about the $34.19 million her district is proposed to receive.

The district may be receiving $1.5 million more than last year.

“I was really concerned with Hurricane Sandy and with all the money they’d be pumping into New York City and the island that they would cut state aid,” Ms. Marrocco said.

Although Indian River Central School District was proposed to receive nearly $46.8 million in state aid, a 6.5 percent increase, Business Manager James R. Koch said he likely will have less to work with when the state budget is finalized in April.

“Specifically at Indian River, I would caution that the budget numbers in the runs are only estimates based on a data base frozen in mid-November,” Mr. Koch said in an email. “These numbers are preliminary and WILL change. We fully expect that the building aid for 2013-14 will be lower than stated in these estimates.”

Sackets Harbor Central School District saw cuts to its state aid last year. This year, the executive budget proposal increased its total aid to $3,286,228, approximately 2.84 percent.

“It’s far better than last year,” said Superintendent Frederick E. Hall Jr. “It is what it is. We’re going to do our best to make ends meet.”

Times staff writers Jaegun Lee, Gordon Block and Susan Mende and Johnson Newspapers writers Amanda Taylor and Benny Fairchild contributed to this report.

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