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GEA

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The state has finally rescinded a cut to education funding that has been costing our schools billions of dollars — now it’s time to rebuild.

But we can only rebuild if we move up from here. We cannot afford any more setbacks.

Ending the Gap Elimination Adjustment will allow our school districts to collect more financial aid than they have been able to for several years now. The total deduction statewide started as high as $3 billion and was eventually reduced to $434 million before being cut altogether. This was great news for education advocates across the state.

However, this new balance needs to be preserved in order for education to truly recover, because of the timing in which the cuts were installed. Around the same time the state started slashing education dollars, school districts were forced to adhere to tax levy cap regulations imposed under New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D).

The Gap Elimination Adjustment was already an enormous deficit for our schools, but adding the cap on top of it made it much more difficult for districts to find their footing. Because of this terrible timing, the true damage done to our districts cannot be measured in just dollars and cents — they’re going to need some time to reposition themselves in the coming years.

Kids are our most important assets and we’re already falling behind other countries when it comes to educational performance. We need our legislators to stay true to their current position when it comes to education spending and invest in higher standards for our students.

We’re gratified that our legislators finally got on board with slashing the Gap Elimination Adjustment cuts. They should have never enacted it in the first place.

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File photo

Comsewogue officials have finalized a budget for the next school year, days after the state came through for school districts in a big way.

The school board adopted Superintendent Joe Rella’s proposal for the 2016-17 school year during its meeting Monday night, supporting a $87.2 million budget that maintains all existing programs, thanks in large part to the state axing its Gap Elimination Adjustment.

The adjustment was enacted six years ago in an effort to close a state budget deficit, and deducted funds from each school district’s state aid allotment. Since its inception, it has cumulatively cost Comsewogue about $23 million in state aid, according to Susan Casali, the district’s assistant superintendent for business.

But the new state budget, upon which lawmakers agreed last week, eliminated that deduction, netting Comsewogue roughly an additional $1.3 million in revenue.

“I think it’s great,” Rella said. “I’m glad we got it back. It means we don’t have to make any big cuts. We’re happy about it — it’s significant.”

Rella’s initial budget proposal in January banked on a full aid restoration, despite the fact that, while state legislators had been pushing for it, the restoration was far from a done deal. Other North Shore school districts, such as Huntington and Miller Place, planned for little to no restoration of the funding during their own budget processes.

Had the state budget fallen short in restoring the funding, Comsewogue would have been faced with some difficult decisions on program cuts.

“If that doesn’t happen, then it’s a whole different world,” Rella said in an interview in March. “We’re anticipating it will happen. Albany’s been very quiet about it, and I’m taking that as ‘no news is good news.’”

Casali said the district administration’s faith in state Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport), the majority leader who previously called the aid restoration a “top priority” this year, paid off during the budget process.

“From the very beginning we’ve done the budget assuming that Flanagan and everybody [else who] promised us this GEA, that they were going to make good on their promise, so we didn’t make any cuts in the budget,” Casali said.

School board President John Swenning expressed appreciation for the additional funds because the district can avoid cuts without presenting a budget to residents that would pierce the state-mandated tax levy increase cap.

The district will receive about $30 million in total state aid next year and will collect about $53.5 million from taxpayers.

“We appreciate what we get,” Swenning said on Monday. “Do we want more? Yes. Do we think we deserve more? … Yes, but we’re not going to be greedy and we’ll say thank you for all that we get.”

Residents will vote on the adopted budget on May 17. Polls at Comsewogue High School will be open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Cheryl Pedisich speaks at the podium after receiving the first-ever Administrator of the Year award from the New York State School Counselor Association. Photo by Andrea Moore Paldy

As New York State lawmakers wrapped up the budget last week, they approved the end of the Gap Elimination Adjustment, a measure that took money from school aid packages to supplement the state budget.

To the relief of school districts across the state, remaining Gap Elimination Adjustment funds will be restored to 2016-17 budgets.

For Three Village, which has lost $34.7 million to the GEA since its inception in 2009-10, the district will receive a total aid package of $46.5 million — a $6.6 million bump from last year. This amount includes the $3.3 million in restored funds, as well as a $2.9 million increase in building aid for the 2014 bond.

The district’s cap on the increase to the tax levy is 2.41 percent and will not require Three Village to cut programs to meet the cap. Instead, said Jeff Carlson, assistant superintendent for business services, the district will restore a number of positions. 

Speaking at last week’s school board meeting, Carlson said that at the secondary level, the district would bring back assistant coaches for junior varsity football and lacrosse, as well as for winter and spring track. These positions will enhance safety, supervision and instruction, he said.

At an earlier meeting, Superintendent Cheryl Pedisich said administrators would reassign 3.0 full-time equivalent (FTE) teaching positions to academic intervention services (AIS) at the elementary level and 1.6 FTEs at the secondary level to rebuild Ward Melville’s business department. There will also be a .4 FTE increase for American Sign Language. 

The board will adopt the budget for the upcoming school year at its April 13 meeting. The public vote will be on May 17. 

Also on the May ballot is a separate transportation proposition to eliminate minimum distance requirements for busing. The measure would allow the district to provide busing for all students.

Currently, all elementary students are bused. Junior high students must live at least a mile away from school and high schoolers a mile and a half away to get transportation. School administrators believe that offering transportation to all students will address safety concerns about narrow, winding streets without sidewalks and crossing busy roads like Nicolls Road. 

If the proposition passes, it would cost $160,000 to add two buses. The addition of the buses would generate $70,000 in transportation aid from the state, Carlson said. 

Taxpayers will also elect two trustees to the school board on May 17.  Following former board member Susanne Mendelson’s resignation last month, the board decided to keep the seat open until the May 17 vote.  Board president Bill Connors said the person with the highest votes would finish out Mendelson’s term, which ends June 30.   

In other financial news, district officials finalized a five-year contract with the Three Village Teachers Association. There will be no salary increase for the first year, 2016-2017, followed by a 1 percent raise each year after, as well as a 2.5 percent step increase for longevity for up to 30 years, Carlson said.

Department updates

The chairs of the foreign language departments at the three secondary schools gave an overview of the departments’ offerings, which now include American Sign Language in the ninth grade. The district also offers French, Italian and Spanish, beginning in seventh grade and continuing to the Advanced Placement level. 

The district hopes to add “one of the less commonly taught languages such as Arabic, Mandarin Chinese, Farsi or Japanese” in the future, the administrators said. 

Social workers and school psychologists also outlined their roles within the school community. Each school has at least one full-time psychologist and a social worker, they said.  Dawn Mason, executive director of pupil personnel services, said district psychologists “partner with families and administrators and teachers to create safe, healthy, learning environments.”

Assemblyman Steve Englebright speaks in opposition of the Gap Elimination Adjustment during a 2013 protest against the state school aid cut. File photo by Rohma Abbas

New York State is doing away with a funding cut that has kept billions of dollars out of schools, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office announced last week.

Legislators recently agreed on a state budget that would end the Gap Elimination Adjustment, a deduction taken out of each school district’s aid for the last several years, originally enacted to close a state budget deficit.

Parents, educators and even legislators have long been advocating for the adjustment’s finish but the push became a shove after state Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport), the majority leader, sponsored legislation to get rid of it. Flanagan called axing the Gap Elimination Adjustment his “top education funding priority” earlier this year.

“We will not pass any budget that does not fully eliminate it this year,” he said. The deduction “has been hurting schools and students for way too long and it is past time that we end it once and for all.”

Over the past five years, legislators had reduced the total statewide deduction from $3 billion to $434 million. In the next school year, it will be removed all together.

“Over the years, the GEA forced many school districts to cut educational programs and reduce services,” Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) said in a statement. “This restoration of aid will greatly help local school districts, and our taxpayers, with the budget funds necessary to educate our children.”

State school aid is projected to increase to almost $25 billion overall — and Long Island is slated to get $3 billion of that.

The New York State School Boards Association noted that the additional aid comes just as the state’s almost 700 school districts are grappling with a “record low” cap on how much they can increase their tax levies, a limit mandated by the state.

“The infusion of state aid will help them preserve student programs and services while still keeping property taxes in check,” the group’s executive director, Timothy G. Kremer, said in a statement.

However, the association said the state should “make sensible adjustments” to the tax levy cap, suggesting officials no longer use the rate of inflation as the standard for setting the limit each year.

The New York State Capitol building in Albany. File photo

For New York schools, cutting the Gap Elimination Adjustment could be an addition by subtraction.

The adjustment, a deduction taken out of each New York school district’s state aid, was enacted several years ago to help the state government close a budget deficit. While the amount deducted has decreased in recent years and there have been efforts to completely restore the funding, state Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport) has recently sponsored legislation that would completely eliminate the system this year, giving more financial help to public schools struggling to make ends meet.

The bill passed in the Senate and must make its way through the Assembly before heading to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D). And as schools across the state wait for the final vote, administrators applauded Flanagan’s efforts in helping them restore their funding.

“Over the past several years our district has been proactive in imploring our elected officials to restore the funds lost under the Gap Elimination Adjustment,” said Cheryl Pedisich, superintendent of schools for the Three Village Central School District. “As we enter our latest budget preparations, we are pleased at the news that this effort has taken an important step forward.”

Over in Northport, Superintendent Robert Banzer said restoring aid would “support critical instructional programming and operational budgets that districts rely on to provide a sound environment for our educational community.”

According to Banzer, aid cuts add to pressure on school budgets.

“Marginal tax caps, decreases in revenues and increases in state mandates leave districts with little room to navigate yearly budgets, and the elimination of the GEA would help alleviate the impact of some of these restraints.”

Port Jefferson Assistant Superintendent for Business Sean Leister was not as optimistic that the Gap Elimination Adjustment would be removed.

Sen. John Flanagan file photo
Sen. John Flanagan file photo

“I’ll believe it when I see it,” he said during a budget presentation at a school board meeting last week.

Leister is estimating a 6 percent increase in state aid next year, a number he called “conservative,” but if the adjustment is eliminated and Port Jefferson receives more state aid than it allots for in the budget, he said school officials would decide together how to spend it.

Comsewogue’s assistant superintendent for business, Susan Casali, said her school district has lost out on almost $23 million in state aid since the first year of the adjustment. In the next school year, Comsewogue schools could lose out on another $1.3 million if the Gap Elimination Adjustment remains. But that could create a problem for the district, which is currently crafting its 2016-17 budget.

“To maintain our financial position and programs, we need to have the full [deduction] restored,” she said in an email this week.

Flanagan said that eliminating the school funding cuts was the Senate’s top priority in education this session. There are currently about $434 million in GEA cuts still in place for schools in 2016-17 but if the bill becomes law, Flanagan said, his legislation would permanently abolish such education budget reductions.

“The Senate’s top education funding priority this year will be the complete elimination of the GEA,” Flanagan said. “Since 2011, the Senate Republicans have worked to restore $3 billion in funding that was lost to schools because of the GEA and we will not pass any budget that does not fully eliminate it this year. The GEA has been hurting schools and students for way too long and it is past time that we end it once and for all.”

Former Gov. David Paterson (D) imposed the GEA in 2010 despite widespread opposition from Republicans. Since it was approved, Flanagan said he and his Republican colleagues have been leading the charge to abolish the GEA and deliver funding increases to help mitigate its impacts on education. Over the past five years, he said, the GEA cuts have been reduced by roughly 85 percent, to $434 million in the 2015-16 budget.

State Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) co-sponsored the legislation alongside Flanagan. In a statement, he said the move was long overdue.

“The elimination of the GEA has been a top priority of mine since it was imposed,” LaValle said. “It has hurt our students and increased costs for taxpayers. The bill we passed completely abolishes the GEA this year and ends its devastating impact on state funding to public schools.”

The legislation has already gained support on the other side of the state Legislature, with Assemblyman Mike Fitzpatrick (R-St. James) saying he was in favor of the GEA elimination and calling on the governor to return all the funds taken from schools since it was imposed.

“It’s simple: The state has an obligation to fully fund our school districts. Some members of the legislature made the shortsighted decision to allow the governor to borrow against the future of our children to close a budget gap created by rampant, uncontrolled spending,” Fitzpatrick said. “It was wrong then and must be resolved once and for all.”

Victoria Espinoza, Elana Glowatz and Alex Petroski contributed reporting.

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Port Jefferson High School. File photo by Elana Glowatz

If all goes according to plan, Port Jefferson school district residents will pay almost the same in taxes next year.

Between those taxes, state aid and other revenues, the total budget for 2016-17 could actually go down, according to a presentation from Assistant Superintendent for Business Sean Leister at the school board meeting on Tuesday night. That’s largely because the district would not spend as much on capital projects next year, with the new high school elevator being one big-ticket item that will not be repeated, and because the district will see a drop in its debt repayments.

Those two significant decreases would offset increases in health insurance payments and transportation costs, among others.

The proposed $41.3 million plan would maintain all academic programs and staffing levels, despite the 2.5 percent decrease in spending as compared to the 2015-16 budget. But Leister noted that the tax levy would go in the opposite direction — residents would see a slight increase of 0.11 percent. That levy bump would come in just below the state-mandated cap on how much it could increase next year, which Leister estimates at 0.16 percent.

Leister’s estimate for next year’s increase in state aid is larger: He’s putting that at 6 percent, a number he called “conservative,” especially in light of the recent discussion between state officials about the Gap Elimination Adjustment.

The adjustment, a deduction taken out of each New York school district’s state aid, was enacted several years ago to help get the state government out of a fiscal crisis. The deduction has been decreasing lately, and there is talk that it could be removed completely in the coming cycle.

Leister is not as optimistic.

“I’ll believe it when I see it,” he said.

If, however, Port Jefferson receives more state aid than it allots for in the budget, Leister said school officials would decide together how to spend it.

And Superintendent Ken Bossert assured the school board that the district also has a plan in the event of receiving less state aid than estimated in the budget proposal.

There are “still a lot of moving parts” in the budget planning process, Leister said. In addition to the question about state aid totals, school districts are still waiting on final numbers for their tax levy caps.