Federal school aid may look best on paper


By Patsy Nicosia with Jim Poole and David Avitabile

It sounds good on paper: $865 million in federal education aid for Upstate New York as part of the still-pending economic stimulus package.
In Schoharie County, that breaks down to an estimated $2.5 million.
But not so fast, caution local superintendents and business administrators.
Depending on what “strings” the aid comes with, much of it could very likely be difficult if not impossible to spend.
“We’re not going to turn away money,” said Cobleskill-Richmondville Superintendent Lynn Macan, “but I don’t want people misled that this is the answer to all our problems.
“I have to believe there will be strings attached that will limit its use.”
As proposed, the federal aid is broken down into money for Title I—federal money schools receive that’s based on poverty—special education, and construction.
For Cobleskill-Richmondville, the breakdown is $190,000/$500,000/$350,000 spread over two years.
Ms. Macan said C-R could probably use the Title 1 money, but she’s not sure about the rest—especially the $350,000 the district would “get” for construction.
“I doubt we could apply it to past construction debt,” she said, “and it’s not enough to build anything with.”
At Sharon Springs Central School, where the breakdown is $60,000/$100,000/$120,000, Business Manager Tony DiPace pointed out the construction portion is likely to come through EXCEL aid—something his district could only manage to use a portion of when it took a building project to voters last year.
“Overall, it depends whether they expand their definition of things like Title 1,” Mr. DiPace said. “There’s not a lot here for general education and most of the money, you can’t ‘swap out.’
“If you don’t have these types of expenditures, it’s a not a lot of help. It’s not where the need is in our school.”
With state aid cuts, SSCS stands to lose $180,000 in state aid. Add to that increase in thinks like teachers’ salaries, and Mr. DiPace said they’re anticipating a budget shortfall of $200,000-$250,000.
“There’s no way we can take this without substantial cuts in general education,” he said.
At C-R, Ms. Macan said aid will be down $561,000. Without the expected increases in transportation, building aid and BOCES, she said, they’d be seeing a $1 million drop.
Ms. Macan said the district isn’t including the federal stimulus money in its budget plans, in part because it’s no sure thing.
She’s also leery of coming to depend on one-time-only money sources.
“If you come to rely on this and then it goes away, you feel the pain in a year or two. It comes to be a problem later.”
For Schoharie Central School, the federal proposal will mean an estimated $60,000/$200,000/$130,000 package.
SCS Superintendent Brian Sherman said his district uses aid from the first two categories to fund its special education teachers and related services.
“But the construction amount has taken us by surprise,” he said, “and we’re not sure what that’s intended to be used for. We’re researching that now.”
If the federal help comes through, Mr. Sherman said it could help by shifting costs from the regular school budget to the federal fund, which is separate from Schoharie’s operating budget.
“The state could siphon some of the proposed federal aid off and appropriate it to schools using a different formula or for a different purpose, depending on how much flexibility is allowed,” Mr. Sherman said.
Middleburgh Central School Superintendent Michelle Weaver said her district’s breakdown is $168,000/$262/000/$320,000.
Like Mr. Sherman and Mr. DiPace, she’s unsure how the construction monies would be used.
Ms. Weaver also pointed out that as with all federal monies, the idea behind the aid is to supplement programs—not supplant them.
“Certainly, any additional monies will help in the budget process, but unfortunately, when they’re tied to specific uses, the impact on the budget won’t be as significant as if they were given to the district to use at its own discretion.”
Also in Schoharie County, Gilboa-Conesville Central School is projected to get $$40,000/$0/$110,000, and Jefferson Central, erroneously listed in state figures as being in Jefferson County, $20,000/$0/$50,000.
In Otsego County, Worcester Central School is down for $40,000/$100,000/$180,000; Schenevus, $30,000/$0/$70,000; and Cherry Valley-Springfield, $60,000/$100,000/$140,000.