Saturday, January 21, 2012

When Is a Dollar Not a Dollar?

Before everyone gets overexcited about restoration of school aid, understand that the percentage change (which is over 7 percent in Dryden without building aid) does not represent more dollars added to the bottom line (i.e., an increase in foundation aid) but rather a decrease in deficit reduction, which the schools refer to as the "gap elimination adjustment"—the money the district owes back to the state. It's a little bit as though your mom loaned you $25 to fill your car up, and instead of raising your allowance as you'd expected, told you that you only had to pay her back $20.

Hidden in the governor's speech was a great boon for counties—the removal of preschool special ed costs over time and their return to the school districts. What one hand giveth, the other taketh away, of course, because those preschool special ed costs can really add up. If you have, say, just eight little two- and three-year olds with extremely special needs, and they have to head off to Racker Center or Binghamton to have those needs met, that can cost $30K a pop, and suddenly a little district whose 1 percent tax levy = $48,000 has an unexpected and unfunded annual expense of $240,000, or a 5 percent increase in the tax levy.

Again, this is a change that will hit small schools hardest.

Schools have done their massive calculations required to determine what their "2 percent cap" really looks like (it is never really 2 percent), and the range seems likely to be great. However, none of the districts around here has a cap as high as 5 percent.

The biggest difficulty will be explaining any of this to the general population, not because the general population isn't capable of understanding it, but because it's all so odd and counterintuitive. "Hey, the governor gave you 4 percent, and your tax cap is only 2 percent! You should be able to make things work without any cuts at all!" "Hey, the governor said 2 percent, but your levy is coming in at 3.47 percent! Why should I approve your budget?" I see no way that the governor doesn't come out of this smelling like a rose, while the districts continue to wallow in despair. It's brilliant, actually.

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