CANANDAIGUA — Amy Jackson Sellers did not mind paying school taxes when she moved to the area a decade ago because she thought her kids were getting a good education in return.
Now, thanks to a New York State policy called the Gap Elimination Adjustment (GEA), she wonders.
“Because of the GEA, our schools are being starved of resources,” Sellers, a Geneva school board member, said at a press conference Wednesday. “Austerity budgets have become the norm.”
Sellers joined school officials from across the region to call for an end to the GEA, a mechanism the state uses to take back some of the aid it allocates to schools. Thirty-nine districts from the Wayne-Finger Lakes and Genesee Valley BOCES regions say they will not increase their tax levies this year if the state eliminates it.
If the GEA remains in place, they warn of catastrophe ahead.
“If these policies continue, our districts will become fiscally and educationally insolvent,” said Gananda Superintendent Shawn Van Scoy. “We have already cut to the bone.”
Van Scoy said districts face a “perfect storm.”
The state implemented the GEA in 2008 — supposedly as a one-time measure to address its own budget. Since 2010, The GEA has cost districts in the two BOCES regions $242 million, Van Scoy said. This year, it is expected to cost them another $45.4 million.
At the same time, the districts are grappling with the state’s tax cap and worrying about the so-called tax freeze that Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants to implement.
The freeze would reimburse residents of districts that stay within the tax cap and explore consolidation for any tax increase they face over the next two years.
The districts say their proposal, which they sent by letter to Cuomo and other lawmakers March 18, makes more sense.
“This plan is more sustainable and pays higher dividends than election-month tax rebates,” Van Scoy said. “It is simply the restoration of funds due to our communities.”
Sellers said Cuomo’s plan to reduce taxes won’t matter if communities do not have good schools as a result.
“It’s time to pay back the state’s debt to our children,” she said.
Representatives from at least 17 districts attended the press conference at the Canandaigua school district’s operations center on Airport Road. Van Scoy, Sellers, Williamson Superintendent Greg Macaluso and Byron Bergen Superintendent Casey Kosiorek spoke on their behalf.
Van Scoy said the GEA has hurt rural, high-needs districts. Because of their smaller tax bases, they would need to increase their tax levies by 10 percent or more to offset the GEA’s impact, he said. By contrast, wealthy, densely populated districts would need to increase their levies by just 1 or 2 percent.
“High need, low-wealth rural public schools cannot look to our communities to make up the gap caused by the GEA,” Van Scoy said.
The result has been 858 job cuts across the two BOCES regions, Van Scoy said. He likened the impact of that to two large factories closing.
In addition, districts have cut programs, including advanced placement classes, school resource officers and foreign languages.
In their letter to Cuomo, the school superintendents said three districts — Lyons, Gananda and Byron Bergen — face insolvency in three years.
“We will be closing our doors,” Kosiorek said. “We will be turning the keys in in Albany.”
The local districts that signed the letter pledging not to increase their levies for the 2014-15 school year if the state acts were Canandaigua, Clyde Savannah, Geneva, Gorham Middlesex, Lyons, Manchester-Shortsville, Marion, Newark, North Rose-Wolcott, Palmyra-Macedon, Penn Yan, Phelps-Clifton Springs, Red Creek, Romulus, Seneca Falls, Sodus, Victor and Waterloo.