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School district, elected officials press for funding changes

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DEXTER — The General Brown Central School District didn’t put itself completely in the shoes it’s wearing now.

The Board of Education and administrators don’t want to walk away, either. With a depleted fund balance, implementation of the Gap Elimination Adjustment and what school officials say is an unfair state aid formula, General Brown schools are on the brink of educational insolvency.

Although not alone, the local school system recently has been a poster child for the harsh reality of the effects of such problems. In recent years the district has both eliminated full-time positions and reduced some to half time, but has struggled to fill part-time posts.

Districts then are left with two choices: raise taxes above their tax cap, which would require 60 percent of the votes in order to pass, or experience a slow bleed of student programs and services.

“The hope for our districts is, if there’s more money for everyone, we’ll get more,” said Jack J. Boak, superintendent of the Jefferson-Lewis Board of Cooperative Educational Services.

While hope is what local schools are holding onto, local elected officials have been busy hearing constituents out about how they need to hear from more residents to create a larger voice.

“The solution to our problem is multipronged,” said Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa. “Finance is one part of it. Equally important is how funding is divided. It’s rigged to benefit wealthy, suburban districts. The other side is efficiencies in our districts.”

While progress has been made throughout the past few budget cycles, and some school districts have seen a minuscule increase in state aid. Mrs. Russell said, “We need more.”

“When we go back into session in January, I think we should be putting $2 billion in additional aid into our school districts,” she said. “We are changing curriculum standards and not providing enough support so teachers can align their teaching with Common Core standards.”

The Gap Elimination Adjustment, which is a cut in state aid made to offset the state budget deficit, is something that has to be eliminated, she said. State Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, agreed. Districts throughout Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties have not received millions of dollars intended for them, due to the adjustment.

“That is why so many school districts are in pretty tough financial times,” she said. “I cosponsored a bill to do away with that. I’ve been working hard to make sure we’re driving more aid to rural schools.”

But when could the adjustment go away? Mrs. Ritchie said that realistically it can’t happen until Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s budget comes out. And that doesn’t necessarily mean it will go away during the upcoming budget season, either.

“We’ve been interested in any dialogue to help out with that,” said Brian Peck, chief of staff for Assemblyman Kenneth D. Blankenbush, R-Black River. “We’re also talking to a lot of our schools now to see how they’re dealing with it.”

How districts are dealing with it, Mr. Boak said, is having to get down to bare bones offerings.

Some of them, such as General Brown, have barely held on. District Treasurer Lisa K. Smith said the district hit bottom this summer, but now that taxes are rolling in things are looking up.

They’d look even better, she said, if more district residents and others throughout the north country let their opinions be heard through a telephone conversation or letter to their local elected officials.

Superintendent Cammy J. Morrison said it’s about time things started turning around for students, and she believes that will happen soon.

“I wouldn’t be here, and Mrs. Morrison wouldn’t be here if we didn’t believe this district would be here 10 years from now,” Mrs. Smith said.

As districts begin to set spending plan development schedules, Mrs. Smith said, there is one point she wants to get across to people — an increase in a district’s tax levy is not the increase people will see on their school tax bill. A tax levy is the total amount to be raised by taxes districtwide. Tax rates are set each August, and vary from town to town.

What may look like a large increase in the tax levy, Mrs. Smith said, may translate into small changes to a taxpayer’s total bill if there is a lot of housing and business development within the district. A 5.38 percent increase in General Brown’s tax levy for this school year — which equaled its tax cap — meant an increase of only 0.79 percent for the Town of Brownville.

“If that is one message we can get out to taxpayers, that’ll be a huge feat,” Mrs. Smith said.

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