School districts eye safety resources, state aid as budget season approaches

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As the deadline for the 2018-19 state budget approaches, school districts across New York are paying close attention to state aid levels and possible resources for new safety measures.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s Executive Budget, released in January, included an increase in Foundation Aid that was significantly lower than last year’s. Foundation Aid is the largest unrestricted aid category supporting public school district expenditures in New York state.

Last year, Foundation Aid increased by $700 million, with an overall school aid increase of $1 billion. This year’s proposed Executive Budget included a Foundation Aid increase of only $338 million, out of an overall school aid increase of $769 million.

Some school districts in Jefferson County saw their own proposed Foundation Aid totals increase by as little as 0.2 percent.

Without enough Foundation Aid, schools would have to increase taxes significantly to keep their programs running, or cut positions. Currently budgets at most north country schools are looking similar to last year’s, though capital reserve fund creation will be on the ballots in the General Brown and LaFargeville central school districts. Carthage Central School is planning a resolution related to its Great Bend building in its budget, and the Indian River Central School District is expecting a slight increase in its technology costs due to device replacement and infrastructure upgrades.

“We’re all eagerly watching the budget development process now,” said Jefferson-Lewis BOCES District Superintendent Stephen J. Todd.

“There’s been a consensus among really all these different education advocacy groups that that Foundation Aid total needs to be increased,” he said. “But between seeing both one-house budgets from the State Senate and state Assembly, and knowing how firmly in our corner our local legislators are, I’m optimistic they’ll come out with a favorable compromise.”

The Assembly proposed a $1.2 billion increase in Foundation Aid in its budget, and the Senate proposed a $717 million increase.

The Assembly also recently passed a series of bills to help improve school security by addressing a variety of issues.

They include measures that would create a school resource officers education aid program and grants, create mental health services coordinator aid programs and grants, support infrastructure investments and create harsher legal penalties for school violence.

Mr. Todd said that “making sure there are financial resources available for school safety improvements has been a very important part of our conversations with our local legislators, and I know they’ve been bringing those concerns to Albany.”

Several north country school districts have taken steps to increase school safety. The Watertown City School District’s current Smart Schools project includes improved safety measures at building entrances. The General Brown school board recently approved re-hiring school resource officer Paul M. Mendez, and Carthage’s school board approved hiring a second resource officer to assist Stanley M. VanZandt. South Jefferson Central School District Superintendent Mary Beth Denny said that South Jeff’s board is looking to hire a school safety officer as well — a retired or current member of law enforcement.

On its website, the Lyme Central School District released a letter detailing some of its planned safety improvements. Law enforcement will have improved access to the building, and its entrances will be more heavily monitored by staff. There will also be a greater police presence in the Alexandria Central School District.

The deadline for the final enacted state budget is April 1, Easter Sunday.

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