By Jann Wiswall

In a letter to hundreds of community leaders, parents and others interested in restoring state funding for New York’s public schools, Ellicottville Central School District Superintendent Mark Ward invited all to attend a “Rally to Restore GEA Funding Cuts” on Monday, March 10 from 7–8:30 p.m. in the high school gym at Ellicottville Central School.

The rally, which is being organized by CA-BOCES District Superintendent Lynda Quick, will include a presentation by Dr. Rick Timbs, executive director of the Statewide School Finance Consortium, who is in the midst of a speaking tour at similar rallies across the state. Timbs will describe the magnitude of the crisis facing the schools unless action is taken during the 2014 legislative session. Specifically, he and others are calling for elimination of the Gap Elimination Adjustment (GEA), adequate and equitable aid to education and a meaningful measure of state mandate relief.

According to the NYS School Boards Association (NYSSBA), “since the 2009-10 school year, the state has deducted from each school district’s state aid allocation … to help the state fill its revenue shortfall. …Districts have been coping with the cumulative impact of four consecutive years of state aid losses resulting from the GEA. The net impact has been detrimental to students in the form of cuts in personnel, programs and services and the depletion of district reserves.” According to NYSSBA, the GEA has cost the state’s schools more than $1.5 billion.

In Ellicottville alone, GEA has cost the district nearly $1.8 million in the past five years.

In his letter, Ward said the event “will provide everyone an opportunity to learn more about the concerns that school leaders, parents, students, teachers, administrators and business and civic leaders have about the future of education in our state.”

He also shared some data that illustrates the efforts Ellicottville School District has had to take over the past five years since the GEA was instituted.

Since 2008-09, he explained, “we have reduced costs, consolidated positions, delayed purchases, cut staff, cut program offerings and used reserves to maintain as much as we could. During this same period of time, we have kept our tax increases to slightly over 2 percent in an effort to be responsible to our taxpayers… We have cut 6.8 teaching positions and reduced support staff by 12 positions! These are substantial numbers based on slightly less than 100 total employees.

“As recommended by the State Comptroller, the District has used a substantial amount of reserves. While budgets and spending have remained relatively stable, the real difference is the revenues, with a dramatic overall decrease in state aid. We are projecting to spend less money in 2013-14 than we did in 2008-09. … However, we are projected to receive roughly 9 percent less total state aid in 2014-15 than we did in 2008-09.

“On top of significant reductions in state support, the state also has mandated increased payments into the Employee Retirement System (ERS) and Teacher Retirement System (TRS). These increases have crippled our ability to deal with the normal increases in the cost of doing business,” Ward said.

“In 2002-03 districts were paying 0.36 percent for employer contributions to the retirement systems; in 2009-10 it was 6.19 percent. This year, the TRS rate is 16.25 percent or $498,000 – which represents 4.5 percent of our budget and 8 percent of our tax levy. The TRS rate is projected to jump to 17.53 percent in 2015-16, which translates into $569,628. On top of that, the current ERS rates are over 20 percent, or ($188,000). These are costs we have absolutely no control over!”

“The bottom line is that the state is simply not providing adequate and equitable aid to education. Eliminating the GEA is the first step that will help every school district across the state.”

“While promised, meaningful mandate relief by the legislature and the governor has not materialized. … How can the governor or the legislature declare there is a $2 billion surplus when they have failed to provide adequate funding to schools?

“Please take time to look at the facts and the impact GEA is having on the education of our children. Ellicottville, like other schools, will not be able to sustain a quality education program without adequate resources. No other taxing entity in New York State has to jump through the hoops we have to … it is time for the legislature and governor to recognize that what they are doing is harming the future of our children,” Ward concluded.