Cuomo’s aid proposal may hurt BOCES, transports

Despite the expected $2,766,293 increase in aid for Chautauqua County schools for 2019-2020, the future may not be bright for two particular budget areas — BOCES and transportation — should Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s services aid proposal go through. In fact, the burden could ultimately fall on the local taxpayers, according to Michael Borges, executive director of the Association of School Business Officials (ASBO) of New York.

On Wednesday, Borges released a statement on behalf of ASBO regarding the impact of Cuomo’s proposal to cap expense-based aid to schools. Currently, each of the 11 categories of reimbursable aids to school districts are determined by different formulas. Under Cuomo’s new proposal, these 11 categories would be shifted to a single block grant based on changes to the district’s enrollment as well as the rate of inflation, with a minimum of zero. In other words, if inflation is low and enrollment decreases in a given year, school districts may be held to no growth for aid in the coming year, even if inflation increases, said Borges.

Although the proposal — if enacted — would not take effect until the 2020-2021 school year, Borges is concerned about the effect it would have on high-need rural school districts with declining enrollment. Over the course of just 10 years, 96.7 percent of New York rural school districts have had declining enrollment and 84.9 percent have had drops of at least 10 percent, according to a 2017 study on rural schools by ASBO.

Borges said that while growth in most of those 11 aid categories is relatively flat, for 96 percent of New York school districts, growth in two categories — transportation and BOCES — continues to increase. He said transportation costs consistently outpace inflation and the essential services BOCES provides districts may become too expensive for schools that receive less aid.

“From an economic development and workforce development standpoint, I’m very concerned about the governor’s proposal on BOCES aid,” David O’Rourke, Erie 2-Chautauqua-Cattaraugus BOCES district superintendent and CEO, told the OBSERVER.

He went on to explain that BOCES provides specialized teaching and facilities that individual school districts are unable to provide, especially in rural areas. “Capping this expense-based aid would slowly starve successful programs that support the development of our workforce,” O’Rourke added.

ASBO compared the actual state aid increases to BOCES and transportation aid over the last three years and the proposed aid for 2019-20 and compared it to the growth rate for each year using the proposed block grant formula, beginning in 2020-21. In 2016-17, 2017-18, 2018-19 and 2019-20, BOCES aid increased by seven percent, three percent four percent and four percent, respectively. Transportation aid increased by one percent, three percent, four percent and four percent respectively. Under the new formula, ASBO said the projected growth rate for both categories would have been 0.1 percent, one percent, two percent and two percent respectively.

“Using 2015-16 as the base year for the block grant would cut 2019-20 aid for most school districts,” said Borges. “High-need rural school districts are the most reliant on this aid and would have experienced the largest reductions of $211 per student.”

O’Rourke agreed that this decreased aid would hit local schools particularly hard. “More broadly, the overall attempt to cap expense-based aid is regressive,” O’Rourke told the OBSERVER. “Districts with higher poverty have higher aid ratios. This proposal will impact vulnerable and high-poverty districts the most. These districts would be faced with choices between sending students to CTE (career and technical education) or replacing an aging bus.”

The alternative — raising school taxes — is not an attractive solution to most. However, neither is merging school districts, as evidenced by Forestville, North Collins and Pine Valley superintendents’ negative responses to the idea, which was suggested at a recent Gowanda Board of Education meeting.

According to O’Rourke, organizations such as ASBO, the New York State School Boards Association and the New York State Council of School Superintendents are working on solutions to share with the state education department to align policies with more efficient spending.

“If anything, the state ought to focus on ways to increase investments in workforce development and career and technical education,” O’Rourke said.