By Tessa Raebeck
In order to fill a shortfall in its budget, five years ago New York State began deducting aid money from its school districts through the Gap Elimination Adjustment (GEA), a formula loudly criticized by educators, school boards and districts across the state.
Now, state Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. of Sag Harbor has introduced legislation to repeal the GEA. His bill is co-sponsored by State Senator Kenneth LaValle and supported by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
Originally enacted to close a $10 billion state budget deficit in the worst years of the recession, the GEA has reduced education aid to New York’s schools by nearly $9 billion in the five school years since its inception in 2010. Schools in New York receive less state aid now than they did during the 2009-10 school year.
Although East End schools do not typically receive large amounts of state aid, the GEA has cost Sag Harbor more than $400,000 over the past two years.
The GEA was introduced by former Governor David Paterson when state legislators developing the budget realized New York’s anticipated revenue did not cover expenses, resulting in a “gap” between the money the state was taking in and the money it needed to operate. The GEA was created to fill that gap by essentially passing the financial burden onto the state’s school districts.
Assemblyman Thiele, who serves on the Assembly’s Education Committee and did not vote in favor of the reduced education aid when it was originally proposed five years ago, said on Tuesday that the financial issues used to promote the GEA are no longer facing the state, and thus its elimination this year is both incumbent and timely.
“I voted against it then because I didn’t think we should be taking money away from education, but now we’ve gone from a deficit to over a $5 billion surplus, so there really is no excuse for continuing the Gap Elimination Adjustment, which is a continuing cut in state aid for the local school districts,” he said.
“Continued state aid loss due to GEA reductions will continue to erode the quality of education school districts can provide. The state cannot continue to pass along its revenue shortfalls to local school districts,” the New York State School Boards Association said in a statement against the GEA, adding that the losses have resulted in “detrimental cuts to personnel, the educational program, services and extracurricular activities” as well as the depletion of reserve funding in districts across the state.
School district officials in both Bridgehampton and Sag Harbor regularly lament that the reduction in state aid has come at the same time as rising costs and the tax levy cap, a law enacted under Governor Andrew Cuomo in 2011 that limits school districts and other municipalities from raising property taxes by district-specific formulas that take into account variables like the Consumer Price Index.
“At a time when New York State has the dual goals of freezing property taxes and improving the quality of education, it is imperative that we provide a level of state funding that is equal to the task,” Assemblyman Thiele said in a press release on the bill.
In a statement taking a strong stance against the aid reduction, the Board of Cooperative Educational Services said, “Several years into the educational funding crisis, many school districts are finding that they have few options left to preserve programs and services that students and families count on.”
The amount taken from each school district is determined annually by a calculation that leans harder on wealthy districts, so suburban schools on Long Island and in the Hudson Valley are, in general, adversely affected by the reduction more than those in New York City.
Last year, Long Island enrolled 17 percent of New York’s students, but received only 12 percent of state aid for education.
“It’s more important to us than it is to the city school districts,” said Assemblyman Thiele. For suburban legislators from Long Island and the Hudson Valley, he said “the number-one priority for education for us is getting rid of the Gap Elimination Adjustment.”
In the 2013-14 school year, the Sag Harbor School District had some $241,000 in state aid taken away through the GEA, according School Business Administrator Jen Buscemi. This year, the district lost $171,395 in aid it otherwise would have received.
“The bottom line,” Assemblyman Thiele said, “is that this issue is going to get resolved one way or another as part of the school aid package that we do with the budget, that hopefully will be done before April 1.”
In January, Governor Cuomo announced he would not release his school aid figures unless the legislature adopts his package of educational reforms. He agreed to grant an additional $1.1 billion, or 4.8 percent, in funding to New York’s schools if and only if the legislature passes his reforms, but threatened to limit that increase to 1.7 percent if they are not met.