By Jann Wiswall

At least 500 public school administrators, teachers, board members, legislative representatives, parents and students from across the region packed the gym at Ellicottville Central School Monday, March 10, for a rally calling for an end to the state’s Gap Elimination Adjustment (GEA) law.

The GEA was introduced in fiscal year 2010-11 as a way to close New York’s $10 billion budget deficit. Under that legislation, the state has been withholding promised funds for schools to the tune of nearly $8.5 billion so far. If left unchanged, the GEA will withhold another $1.3 billion in state aid in fiscal year 2014-15.

Statewide School Finance Consortium Executive Director Rick Timbs, PhD, who was the rally’s dynamic keynote presenter, argued that while the GEA has had a cumulative negative impact on each and every public school across the state, there has been a disproportionate impact on schools in lower and medium wealth districts compared to high wealth districts.

All but two schools in the Southern Tier counties of Allegany, Cattaraugus and Chautauqua fall into the lower wealth category. Ellicottville and Chautauqua Central Schools each fall into the low end of the medium wealth category.

While the state has claimed its implementation of the GEA has been “equal” across school districts, Timbs maintained that, in fact, implementation has been neither “equitable” nor “fair” because the state’s aid formulas are based only on property values and income and do not take all the relevant data, such as “poverty and fiscal capacity,” into account.

As a result, funding for low and medium wealth schools has been chronically insufficient and unfair if the goal is to give all students access to the same definition of a quality education.

Local Impact

In this region alone, Timbs said schools have lost $236 million in state aid as a result of GEA cuts over the past four school years, even as the state has required implementation of new assessments, higher contributions to teacher retirement plans and other unfunded mandates. Every school in the region has had to find ways to make up the shortfall using one of three tools: cut staff, cut programs or use reserves. Most have done all three.

But, he said, “districts can’t cut the same program more than once or cut the same staff member more than once,” while “fund balances continue to dwindle.” In fact, he said, in Western New York, 5.5 percent of school districts will entirely deplete their fund balances in one year, 19.6 percent will deplete them in two years and 35.7 percent will deplete them within three years.

The only other strategy available to school districts is to find more revenue, and there are only two sources for that: state funds and tax levies. With state funds reduced to such an extreme, most districts have had to ask for tax increases — and most have had to exceed the tax cap.

“No school in Western New York can keep within the tax cap and survive,” he said, particularly as those fund balances vanish.

What Can Be Done?

Timbs explained that the state legislature is working on its 2014-15 budget now and is considering a three-year phase out of the GEA. He encouraged all rally participants to write, tweet, email and call their legislators by March 17 to ask them to: get rid of the GEA NOW, ensure that its distribution formula takes into account both poverty and fiscal capacity, and ensure that no new mandates are imposed on our schools without the full funding necessary to support them.

The timing is critical. School district budgets must be drafted by April 1 and superintendents and school boards must know what their state aid level will be before they can finalize their proposed budgets and prepare for voter referendums.

Ellicottville Superintendent Mark Ward, who has been talking about the challenges surrounding the 2014-15 budget for months, commented that Timbs did an excellent job “breaking the numbers down in a way that made it easier to understand. The issue of fairness and equity was driven home quite clearly with the data he shared. It is time for [the GEA] to go away and stop balancing the state budget on the backs of the schools.”

Ward added, “Our district, like many others across the state has taken steps to deal with this over the past four years, but we have no more rabbits to pull out of the hat.”

The rally was presented by the Chautauqua County School Boards Association, the Allegany Cattaraugus Association of School Boards and the Southwestern and Western Region Parent Teachers Associations. It was organized by CA-BOCES District Superintendent Lynda Quick.