by Carreen Schroeder
On the very bitter evening of Wednesday, Jan. 22, the Niagara-Wheatfield Board of Education meeting was held in front of a crowd of concerned residents.
The residents were concerned for a number of reasons, but perhaps the greatest concern of all was the state comptroller's recent announcement that the Niagara-Wheatfield School District is in "significant fiscal stress."
The office of the state comptroller, Thomas P. DiNapoli, laid out its Fiscal Stress Monitoring System in December of 2013, which reflects the state's respective school districts' fiscal year, ending in June 2013. N-W ranked third in the state listing for financial stress, while nearby Lewiston-Porter ranked second.
When asked to explain why he felt the Niagara-Wheatfield School District was under financial stress, board President Steven Sabo stated that it has a lot to do with losing a significant amount of state aid, while still carrying the burden of the Gap Elimination Adjustment, which became a permanent part of state aid allocations as of the 2011-12 academic year.
The purpose of the GEA is to reduce state aid to school districts in an effort to help bridge the gap in the state's budget.
Sabo stated that in the four years that the GEA has been in place, the school district has lost $19 million in state aid.
In addressing Gov. Cuomo's 2014-15 executive budget, Sabo said that compared to the approved executive budget of the 2013-14 academic year, there is a decrease in state aid of 4.5 percent. "The governor talked about a 5.8 percent increase in education spending," said Sabo. His contention was that the term "education spending" is misleading, as it doesn't necessarily mean state aid.
Sabo argued the state "singled out" the Niagara-Wheatfield School District. He stated the district's population is the only one growing or remaining even in the county. He therefore believes they should be getting an increase in aid, whereas other districts that are experiencing a decrease in population are getting increases.
Sabo said the district is "asked constantly to do more with less."
To support this statement with a concrete example, Sabo referred to the continued debate in Albany over a universal pre-K program that "districts have to help fund and hope that the state will keep up."
He urged N-W residents to lobby senators and legislators for an increase to state aid.
In a response to being in the top three school districts in Western New York to receive the alarming designation of significant fiscal stress, Superintendent Dr. Lynn Fusco referred to a report by the district's external auditor, Drescher and Malecki.
Presented to the board in October 2013, Drescher and Malecki's report stated that the district has closed an anticipated gap and showed a surplus. She stated that despite the financial burdens placed on the district with the loss of significant state aid, the district is beginning to breathe on its own.
After breaking down the comptroller's Fiscal Stress Monitoring System through a series of power point slides, Fusco showed optimism for the district's future, while cautiously stating, "We have a long way to go before we will be fiscally healthy."
For school districts, the system's fiscal stress indicators are based on four categories: year-end fund balance, operating deficits, cash position and use of short-term debt. Based on this system, should a school district receive an overall score greater than or equal to 65 percent, it will be deemed to be in significant fiscal stress.
The Niagara-Wheatfield School District received an overall score of 80 percent. School districts also receive an Environmental Stress score based on five categories: property value, enrollment, budget votes, graduation rate and free and reduced priced lunch. Should a school district receive an overall score of less than 30 percent in these areas, it will be given "no designation," meaning they are not considered to be in environmental stress. Niagara-Wheatfield received a score of 5 percent and therefore received no designation.
•Board Member Amy Deull also expressed concern over state mandated amendments to the district's policy manual. One amendment of particular concern involved changes to Law 7240 of the policy manual, which deals with access to student records. Deull said that without parental consent, the state has entered into a contract with 'inBloom,' a nonprofit organization funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York that are heavily involved in the Common Core. Deull explained that the state accepted the organization's offer to take, store and keep this data, which will no longer belong to the respective school districts.
Deull stated that although districts do not have to accept this service, many are because inBloom is offering this service for free for the first three years, after which there will be a charge.
Deull said that since many districts are receiving designations of significant, moderate or susceptible fiscal stress, they are desperate to be given a financial break without considering the repercussions. She further stated that many states had initially shown interest but that New York state is currently the only inBloom participant. Deull also stated that inBloom has given no guarantee that the personal data will be kept private, and that it may be shared with third-party entities such as commercial vendors to further develop and market learning products. The personal data includes, but is not limited to: student names, addresses, grades, test scores, economic, race and special education status.
•In other news, the Section VI Fall Scholar Athletes were formally presented with awards. Congratulations to Emily Belote, the winner for girls soccer, and Jake Schoelles, the winner for football. Honorable mention went to Noah Asklar for soccer, Kyle Bennett for football, Megan Breier for tennis, Hannah Carrier for cross country, Joseph Corio for soccer, Bridgette Ehrmann for swimming, Kalie Lazarou for tennis, Nicole Lundberg for volleyball, Kaitlyn Mazierski for volleyball, Ayman Mustafa for cross country, Daniel Peltier for football, Mitchell Pittman for football, Rebecca Rider for cross country, Halle Sauer for cross country, Ashley Ward for volleyball and Leanne Wills for volleyball.