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State Aid

John Cunniffe, right, of John Cunniffe Architects, Ken Horan, principal, and Laura Sixon, electrical engineer, of Jacobsen & Horan Engineering, outside the future Long Island Museum visitors center and gift shop building. Photo from The Long Island Museum

Two familiar structures in the Three Village area are about to get makeovers.

New York state Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport) recently secured state grants for The Long Island Museum in Stony Brook and the Old Field Lighthouse. The museum will receive $300,000 for the renovation of the saltbox building that was once used as a visitors center and gift shop. The Village of Old Field will receive $278,000 from the state to offset the cost of repairs the lighthouse needs.

Museum visitors center and gift shop

The interior of architect’s model with examples of shop furnishings from East Setauket architect Robert Reuter. Photo from The Long Island Museum

Sarah Abruzzi, director of major gifts and special projects at LIM, said the structure closest to 25A on the west side will be the one renovated. The old gift shop and visitors center was closed in 2009, and museum guests currently browse a small selection of items in a gift corner located in the history museum also on the west side of LIM’s campus on Route 25A. Patrons buy tickets and get information there too.

Abruzzi said the decision to close the original visitors center and gift shop was tough, but the right one at the time. The director said many patrons have missed the former gift shop that offered a wider variety of items and asked for its return, and recently it became a priority to get one up and running as soon as possible.

Abruzzi said she and museum executive director Neil Watson met with Flanagan in May to discuss the plans they are working on. The gift shop renovation is the lead project within a master plan for LIM, according to Abruzzi.

“It’s so generous, it’s so wonderful,” she said. “We’re so proud that Senator Flanagan recognizes that the museum is such an important part of the community.”

Flanagan said it was his pleasure to secure the funding for the renovations for LIM’s upcoming 80th anniversary.

“It is so important that the history of our region is preserved and available to our residents and The Long Island Museum is crucial in that effort,” he said. “This project will enhance the experience for all future visitors while also providing a platform for local artists, and I am glad to be able to assist in this undertaking.”

Abruzzi said once the building is renovated, visitors will be able to go inside to get tickets, information and buy from a wider variety of items in the new gift shop, including more original art and crafts from local makers.

“We’re just really trying to reinforce the Long Island connection,” she said.

Local architect John Cunniffe is working on construction drawings, according to Abruzzi, and once the process is completed the bidding phase will begin. She said Flanagan securing the grant is a tremendous help in the project that was launched with museum supporters’ financial commitments. Last year’s LIM holiday gala raised approximately $25,000 toward the renovations at the museum and covered the cost of design and engineer fees.

Old Field Lighthouse

The Old Field Lighthouse is in need of extensive repairs. Photo from Village of Old Field website

Village of Old Field Mayor Michael Levine said the lighthouse, built in 1868, needs extensive repairs from the basement to the top

“Almost every aspect of the lighthouse needs to be repaired,” Levine said. “It hasn’t been repaired in decades.”

The mayor said there is significant leaking within the walls, windows need to be replaced, the cast iron where the beacon sits is pitted, plaster is falling and the bathroom needs to be redone.

“The money that we are getting is extremely helpful, but it’s really just the beginning of the process,” he said.

The mayor said the village is in the process of setting up a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization to allow residents to contribute to the renovations that will take a few years to complete.

According to Flanagan’s website, the money will also help in making the lighthouse, which is open to the public during the day, Americans with Disabilities Act compliant.

“The Old Field Lighthouse is a landmark of major importance to our region as well as a continuing beacon of safety for Long Island boaters,” the senator said. “It is crucial that we protect these historic properties for future generations, and I am happy to work with Mayor Levine and the rest of the Village of Old Field board to secure this funding to preserve this piece of Long Island history.”

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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.

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Comsewogue school board President John Swenning and Superintendent Joe Rella, along with the rest of the board and administration, have begun 2018-19 budget preparations. File photo by Alex Petroski

If Comsewogue School District wants to maintain all of its academic programs in the coming year, it’s going to need state officials to return aid that was previously taken away.

Superintendent Joe Rella released his first budget draft for the 2016-17 school year at a board of education meeting on Monday night, projecting an $87.2 million spending plan that would keep all existing programs. That budget would represent an increase of about $2 million over the current school year, due in large part to increasing costs in instruction.

But Rella’s proposed budget hinges upon a full restoration of the Gap Elimination Adjustment, a deduction of state aid taken from all New York school districts, enacted several years ago in an effort to close a state budget deficit.

State Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport), his chamber’s majority leader, recently sponsored legislation that would completely eliminate the adjustment in the next school year, though nothing is set in stone — his bill, S6377, passed in the Senate in January but has yet to come to a vote in the Assembly.

Comsewogue is not alone; school districts statewide are counting on a full restoration of the GEA this year due to a relatively low state-mandated cap on tax levy increases, which limits the amount of property taxes districts can collect and is largely determined each year by the rate of inflation. Before exemptions for a few items, such as spending on capital projects, school districts are looking at a 0.12 percent limit on how much they can add to their tax levies next year.

Comsewogue’s exempted spending, which includes funds to replace the roof at Clinton Avenue Elementary School, brings its proposed tax levy increase to 1.2 percent.

Restored state aid from the GEA could be crucial for some.

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

Rella’s proposal suggests there would be cuts to staffing, including teachers, coaches and aides, as well as clubs, supplies and athletics if the schools don’t receive that additional state aid. His presentation also says Comsewogue would have to use $425,000 in reserves to help fund whatever is left.

If the state funding does come in, according to his proposal, the district would receive about $30 million in total state aid, which is an increase of $1.9 million over the current 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.