State aid increase allows school districts to add programs, hold the line on spending | Local

A large infusion of state aid is allowing local school districts to increase spending — in some cases significantly — to address ongoing student needs while recovering from the pandemic, without increasing the tax levy.

Voters on Tuesday will head to the polls to decide on budgets that increase spending by an average of just under 3%, according to an analysis of 25 districts in The Post-Star’s coverage area. However, the average tax levy increase is 1.26%.

Some districts are not increasing their tax levies at all — despite a big increase in their budgets.

For example, Hudson Falls is proposing a 6.36% increase in spending, but is keeping its tax levy flat. Whitehall is going up by 8.72%, while not increasing taxes.

Districts can increase spending because total school aid in the state budget passed in April went up by $2.1 billion, or 7.2%, to $31.5 billion. The basic Foundation Aid grant, which is awarded to districts based upon their population and income levels, increased by $1.5 billion.

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The average state spending increase is about 3.7% and the average tax levy increase is about 1.8%, according to New York State School Boards Association spokesman David Albert.

School districts are facing the same inflationary pressures as everyone else.

“I think all of us have felt the pinch at the gas pump when we’ve gone to fill up our cars,” he said. “Think of what it’s like when you’re filling up a fleet of school buses or you’re providing cafeteria services for a number of different schools.”

Other increased costs are for health insurance, according to Albert.

Only 16 districts out of 673 that submitted data to the state Education Department sought to go over the cap. Albert said seven of those involved situations where the district’s tax cap was negative because of a quirk in the formula.

Albert said school districts are continuing to invest in new staff and programs to help students make up for learning loss because of the pandemic. This includes mental health workers and school social workers and academic intervention specialists and support staff. Districts are also implementing extended school day programs.

Hudson Falls Superintendent of Schools Superintendent Dan Ward said the district is increasing psychological and school counseling services to help students recover from the pandemic.

The district is also adding initiatives such as an agricultural program in the high school. District officials are also adding staff to improve reading at the middle school level.

“We’re not going to see better outcomes at the high school unless we can get more students reading at grade level prior to high school,” he said.

As a poorer district, Hudson Falls gets almost 70% of its revenue from state aid. The district is seeing an increase of nearly $3 million to over $34 million.

Ward said in a presentation to the board on Monday that many school districts had been shortchanged for many years. The amount of funding that they should have received under the Foundation Aid formula had been trimmed. This year, the state is providing the aid it should have been providing all along.

“Those are programs and services that the students have gone without for the last 10 years,” he said. “We are working to add things that should have been there.”

Hadley-Luzerne Superintendent of Schools Beecher Baker said the state aid increase will allow the district to maintain all the programs that have been added to help students recover from the pandemic.

“Really, it’s about social/emotional wellness for kids,” he said.

The district is adding an academic intervention services teacher. The district also added an LPN to help assist the two nurses at the elementary school and junior-senior high school. A new social worker is also included in the budget.

“Children are having a tougher time in school,” Baker said.

Capital projects

Some districts are also proposing capital projects or at least putting some of the extra money aside for a future capital project, according to Albert, of the school boards association.

South Glens Falls is proposing a $33.6 million project. The bulk of the work would occur at Oliver W. Winch Middle School including renovating the library, expanding the band room, modernizing locker rooms, refurbishing classrooms and relocating the seventh-grade science lab.

Athletic upgrades include installing a multi-purpose turf field on the high school campus, relocating the track and baseball field from the high school to Tanglewood Elementary School and installing an irrigation system at the middle school and Tanglewood fields.

Hartford Central School is seeking approval for an $8.86 million capital project, which includes renovating its cafeteria and building a dedicated space for the school’s performing arts department.

School board races

There have been anecdotal reports across the country about more interest being expressed in school board seats as parents have spoken out against COVID policies involving mask mandates and online learning, as well as having concerns about curriculum.

Last year, there were candidates in New York that were spurred to run because of those issues.

Albert said the number of candidates running is about on par with an average year. It has been about 1.4 people running for every seat. This year, it is around 1.46 candidates for every seat. 

There are still instances in particular districts of large fields of candidates.

Another trend is there seem to be fewer incumbents running and more first-time candidates. Albert said the association is reaching out to some incumbents to find out why they decided not to run again. There could be a variety of factors at work, he said.

“It has been challenge over the last couple of years with the virus and schools being remote, obviously, people upset over masks,” he said.

People may also want to just move on and do other things, according to Albert. People have changed jobs and their overall lifestyle because of the pandemic.

“They’ve done their board service. Maybe they want to spend more time with family,” he said.

In Lake George, only one of three incumbents, Maryanne MacKenzie, is running for reelection. Three, 3-year seats are available. The other candidates are Linda Clark, Lisa Doster, Mario Fasulo, Chris Picard, Donna Prime and Gregg Sawdy.

Clark and Doster are running as a ticket in opposition to the district adopting a diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI, policy.

Elsewhere, there are contested races in Argyle, Glens Falls, Granville, Greenwich, Hudson Falls, Johnsburg, Saratoga Springs, South Glens Falls and Whitehall. In Fort Ann and Salem, there are fewer candidates than available seats, so the election will come down to write-in candidates.

One former school superintendent and one soon-to-retire superintendent are running for school boards. Former Cambridge Superintendent Vincent Canini is challenging incumbent board President Ben Bishop for a five-year term on the Hudson Falls Board of Education.

Superintendent Baker, who is retiring from Hadley-Luzerne at the end of June, is poised to secure a seat on the Queensbury Board of Education. He is one of three candidates running unopposed for three five-year seats.

Baker said he was interested in keeping a hand in education. He does not have a specific agenda, he said.

“It’s really me coming and seeing what’s happening and trying my best to help the teachers and administration get the job done,” he said.

Canini said in an email that Hudson Falls treated him well when he served as a director of business services for the district. He held that position for seven years until taking the job at Cambridge in 2009.

Canini said he wanted to contribute and he has turned down offers to serve as interim superintendent in the community.

“I have always been a believer that voters should have choices and no other petitions had been picked up when I picked up mine,” he said.

Fort Edward also has a proposition to reduce the number of seats on the board from nine to seven. Board member Amanda Durkee had suggested the change because she believes the current number is a little large for the size of the district, according to board meeting minutes. She also had sought to reduce the length of the term to three years but that did not get majority support.

Michael Goot is night and weekend editor of The Post-Star. Reach him at 518-742-3320.

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