This Point of View was submitted by Matthew J. Downey, president of the Bethlehem Central School District Board of Education, and Charmaine L. Wijeyesinghe, Ed.D., Vice President.
Now is the time of year when the New York State Legislature and Governor debate and formulate a state budget that includes funding for vital functions like our state’s public school system. This is also the time of year when Boards of Education in our State are formulating their district budgets for the 2015-16 school year. In Bethlehem, our budget development process is transparent, open and efficient, inviting community input. Like all school districts, our task involves evaluating state aid estimates, reviewing budget projections and determining the local tax levy necessary to support our educational program. This is a challenging task – with the provision of quality public education for the children of our community hanging in the balance. This year, the work of all school boards in New York State has been made even more difficult by the fact that we must put together our respective school district budgets without having the benefit of receiving key state aid figures that guide our budget development efforts.
The reason? This year, when the Executive Budget was proposed to the Legislature, it was instructed that state aid estimates be withheld from school districts, until policy changes proposed in the budget were enacted. Without aid runs, school districts are left guessing — about the amount of school aid that our school will receive, about what taxpayers might see on their tax bills in September, and about what a school district’s educational program might look like in the coming school year.
This withholding of state aid information comes on top of years of state budgets that eroded state education aid for all school districts – including Bethlehem. The loss of this state aid (through a mechanism called the Gap Elimination Adjustment, or GEA, and the freezing of state school aid through changes to Foundation Aid) caused upheaval for school budgets. In Bethlehem, the cuts caused an 18 percent reduction in teaching and administrative staff, the closure of an elementary school, the reconfiguration of bus transportation requiring students to walk longer distances, and other changes that resulted in fewer teachers and larger classes.
In the past six years, school districts statewide have lost nearly $9 billion in state aid. In Bethlehem alone, GEA losses have cost Bethlehem $18 million in state funding since 2010. This year, without the Legislature acting to get rid of the GEA, Bethlehem’s school funding will be cut by another $3 million.
In 2015, the state has a projected $5 billion surplus. With this positive budget environment, it’s time to stop the erosion of funding to our public schools by eliminating the GEA and the Foundation Aid cuts. On behalf of the thousands of school children in our school district, we ask our elected officials to stand up for public education and stand firmly in support of our public schools. Our students, parents, and community — as well as our educational program — depend on it.