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Bricks and mortar trump teachers in state budget

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By Joyce Kryszak

http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/wbfo/local-wbfo-960927.mp3

Buffalo, NY – Schools across Western New York are finalizing painful staffing and programming cuts now that they know their final state aid numbers. But many of those same schools also are going to be rolling out multi-million dollar capital improvement projects.

Although operating aid was slashed, state building aid was left whole. It even included an incentive to encourage schools to take on debt and start building.

There will be just as many kids or more clambering their way to classrooms next fall. But there will be fewer teachers to teach them and fewer educational programs. Many Western New York schools are eliminating teachers and programs in everything from the arts and academics to sports and remedial classes.

James Bodziak is Superintendent for the Frontier Central School District. He said they have a nearly two million dollar budget gap to fill. And he said they are not alone.

"Boards of education, and superintendents and administrators in general are working very hard to try to minimize the number of cuts that we have to make. But in this state of economy, if you will, it's not going to be able to be business as usual," said Bodziak.

But there is one area of school financing that is business as usual. State building aid for schools stayed the same. In fact, a ten percent increase in reimbursements for capital improvements also was included if projects are approved by June 30.

So, across the state, and right here in Western New York, that means the push is on.

Frontier is among several school districts that will ask taxpayers in May to approve multi-million dollar capital projects. The price tag for the one at Frontier is about $29.75 million.

The project would repair leaky roofs, cracked sidewalks, replace some windows, renovate science labs and expand the media center among other things. The state would kick back a total of 85 percent of the costs to the district over the life of the bond.

According to Bodziak, the state threw in the little extra to entice districts.

"The reason that a lot of the districts are going out this year is that the state provided another incentive of about ten percent," said Bodziak.

When asked if he thought that was odd when the state has a fiscal crisis, Bodziak said he could not speak for the thought processes of lawmakers and the governor.

Governor Andrew Cuomo did originally propose a cap on the building aid and a competitive process for awarding the aid based on need. Then there was talk of at least doing away with the incentive.

But lawmakers rejected all of it. State Assemblyman Sam Hoyt of Buffalo offered one explanation.

"You can't stop, because of a budget crisis, the maintenance and upkeep of buildings," said Hoyt. "And, in some cases, with districts expanding in population you have to do additions and new builds."

But Assemblyman James Hayes of Amherst thinks the influence of downstate lawmakers had more to do with it. Still, he said that is not necessarily a bad thing.

"To the extent that New York City really pushed that I hope our school districts can take advantage of it," said Hayes. "And I hope that people at the local level, voters and taxpayers, will take the time to scrutinize these projects one by one."

School officials are quick to point out there is need. Jeffrey Rabey is superintendent for the Depew Union Free School District. He said their $15.9 million project not only fixes problems but would save money by consolidating administrative offices.

The district's capital reserve fund will pick up most of what the state does not. But Rabey admits asking voters to approve the project while also asking them to accept staffing cuts and tax hikes will be a tough sell.

"There are a number of items on this list that need to be mitigated through our building condition survey and if we did not have the capital reserve that would have an impact on the local taxpayers," said Rabey.

Instead, the costs are simply taken out of different pockets, with most of the burden spread to taxpayers statewide.

But perhaps the bigger question is why lawmakers chose to keep the building aid intact rather than reduce it and shift some of that money into general school operating aid. Hoyt said these are difficult choices.

"Prioritizing both operations, which means teachers in the classroom, and the capital needs is a balancing act that we have to do," said Hoyt.

Still, even school officials who want their capital projects funded said it should be a no brainer.

Jeff Petrus is Assistant Superintendent for Business in the Orchard Park Central School District. They are proposing an $11.5 million dollar project. The state would reimburse 77 percent of that. But Petrus said they would rather have the money to fill their six million dollar budget gap - and not have to fire teachers.

"Our primary educational program is the most important thing, that's what we're here for," said Petrus. "So, definitely, I'd like to see all of it going toward what's going on in the classrooms. That's definitely a priority."

The other superintendents WBFO talked with agreed. As for the lawmakers interviewed, they said next year they will be more carefully scrutinizing how much money is allocated and into which education pot the money goes.