Budget cuts hurt in Utica

The Utica small city schools have been up against a lot of budgetary concerns for years now. Two of the strikes against them are a declining tax base, and increasing needs to deal with an increasing immigrant population. Here’s an excerpt from that Feb. 2 Utica Observer-Dispatch article:

Utica does qualify for two programs that provide some extra help — $391,762 per year — because of the refugees, but that amounts to less than half of 1 percent of its budget.

“We absolutely love our refugees, they bring a lot to the classroom,” said Carla Percia, the district’s director of grants, contracts and compliance. “We would just like a little more help being able to provide them more.”

That federal money comes from two sources, one called Title III, and a competitive Refugee School Impact Grant. There is a sub-part of Title III just for refugees, but Utica doesn’t qualify for it because the entire refugee population did not grow by 10 percent.

“We had that last year,” Percia said. “The immigrant population (this year) is a little bit different.”

Also, none of the money it does get can be used to hire a teacher.

We remind you about this two-month-old article because the Utica schools face a $10 million deficit in the schools this year and so the district is looking to cut about 217 jobs. The Utica Teachers Association tried to negotiate savings for the district that would save jobs and programs for the kids. They proposed about $6.6 million in savings. Most of which is helping the district to close the budget gap.

Earlier this week, members rejected a wage freeze that would save $1.89 million for the district. It was a close vote, as union votes go, only failing by 125 votes or 15 percent.

The real disappointment is the school board president’s comment that teachers “didn’t do what is right” and the Superintendent’s comment that the union membership was unwilling to help with the deficit.

Why are union members who have sacrificed already being blamed?

Back to that Feb. 2 article, Richard Timbs, executive director of the Statewide School Finance Consortium, explained how the state used to take English Language Learners into consideration when allocating aid, but doesn’t anymore. Worse, because of budget problems, the basic aid, called Foundation Aid, has been frozen since 2009. Because of the growing population and because of the high refugee population, he said, “(Utica’s) cuts have been more draconian, more harmful. “Any extra help they’re getting is simply insufficient to the size of their dilemma,” he said.

State aid is where the argument is, and where the real money lies, not in a wage freeze.

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