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Syracuse school district requests more state aid

Jon Lim

As the Syracuse City School District goes into its budget process, it’s looking at a $24 million spending gap, a revenue problem stemming from years of stagnant state aid in the face of rising educational costs.

The District’s Chief Financial Officer, Suzanne Slack, decided to name this year’s budget report after a weather event. She saw a news story about frigid temperatures this winter caused by the Polar Vortex.

“It made me laugh because I really felt like here in Syracuse we’ve had a Polar Vortex for six years, because our foundation aid has been frozen just about that entire time,” Slack said.

Foundation Aid is the school spending that comes out of the state’s general fund. It provides the bulk of school revenues and has risen two percent over six years. During four of those six years the aid remained frozen. While aid from the state has remained nearly the same, the districts proposed budget is $372 million, a seven percent increase over last year. Reasons for the increase range from higher pension payments to higher costs related to the new Common Core curriculum.

Over the six years of frozen or slightly thawed state aid, Slack said the district has eliminated parts of its workforce and made other cuts to close budget gaps.

“You usually come forward in February with draconian staffing cuts, 100, 200, 400 positions, and after doing that for five or six years, we’ve cut 23 percent of the workforce," Slack said. "We’ve cut programming and supplies that, at this point, we can’t do that anymore.  We can’t close another building.  There isn’t room for the children anymore if we do that.”

She said that doesn’t leave many options for closing the current $24 million deficit. The district will use $14 million from a district savings account, and $3 million in state aid from a subsequent year, bringing the deficit down to $7 million, but at that point, the district needs help from the state.  

“We’ve really shown the state over the last several years, we’ve been incredibly responsible with spending and saving," Slack said. "Every time we can save money and put it in that fund balance we do. And this year we’re using every available penny of our own money before going to the state to ask for its assistance."

Still, Slack said the district must prepare for the chance Albany does not come through.

“Then we go back and sharpen our pencils, we eliminate jobs in the schools and central office, we will eliminate programs and reducing services to students," Slack said. "And we’ve done that for many years in a row, and if we do that it would be detrimental, and we are trying to avoid that by making the case to the state that we really need their help this year.’

Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.