B y Derek Liebig

Local school districts are set to receive more aid under the state’s budget but those increases vary widely from district to district.

The $142 billion budget, approved last Tuesday, calls for $23.5 billion in school aid, a $1.4 billion increase. But some officials are questioning the distribution of that aid.

“We thought the formulas would be done in a way that benefits high-need, rural schools that have been suffering since 2009,” said Granville Superintendent Mark Bessen. “We thought there was some light at the end of the tunnel.”

Added Bessen: “The formula for the GEA (Gap Elimination Adjustment) appears to have benefited richer, suburban districts that were swimming along pretty well.”

Granville will receive an additional $318,127 in aid. The state restored $267,511 in the district’s GEA and increased its Foundation Aid, the largest source of aid for school districts, by $50,616.

“The overall increase to the (state’s) education budget was $1.4 billion, yet our allocation was almost half what of we received for 2014-15,” said Cathy Somich, business manager. “It does not appear the state used the same formula to distribute aid.”

The district was eyeing a shortfall of more than $888,098 before the state approved its budget last week.

The increase in aid leaves the district with a projected shortfall of $561,971. To cover that gap, the district will use its fund balance for the third consecutive year.

Officials had been optimistic last week that the district would receive more aid. They had even discussed the possibility of reducing the tax levy, but that does not seem likely at this point and officials will likely forge ahead with a 1.11 percent increase, the highest allowable under the state’s tax cap.

Neighboring districts appeared to have fared better than Granville.

Data on the Education department’s website shows Granville’s aid increase was 2.1 percent while Hartford and Whitehall will each receive about 6.6 percent more.

Despite a budget less than half the size of Granville’s, Hartford received a $353,000 increase in aid.

“We were somewhat pleased,” said Hartford Superintendent Andrew Cook. “Our Foundation Aid, which is our main source of revenue in terms of aid, was a very minimal increase but we had a significant reduction in our Gap Elimination Adjustment.”.

The district will receive an additional $16,000 in Foundation Aid and the state restored $337,000 in GEA funds.

Cook said the district had entered the budget process assuming no increase in aid and were projecting a tax levy increase of 2.88 percent and were looking at using $780,000 in fund balance.

With the increased aid, Cook said, he plans to recommend the district use less fund balance.

“The amount we’ve used the past years is unsustainable,” said Cook, who added that the district will look to finalize its budget after spring break.

Whitehall received a $25,800 increase in Foundation Aid and had $184,969 of GEA restored.

Bessen and Somich pointed out the inequity in funding across the state.

They said aid is supposed to be distributed using a formula that takes into account a district’s combined wealth ratio, which is a measure of a district’s tax base and residents’ income. Essentially the poorer the district, the more funding it should receive.

Granville’s number is .4, meaning the district is less than half as wealthy as the average one in the state.

The formula, however, is capped at .7 so a district, like Granville, only receives funding up to .7 and not below that level.

Officials will make adjustments to its budget and the board will look to finalize the spending plan at its next meeting on April 21.

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