Local superintendents of school districts universally panned Gov. Andrew Cuomo's proposal last week that Long Island school districts should use their reserve funds to compensate for the shortfall in state aid this year.
Cuomo is aiming to reduce state aid by 1.5 billion statewide, translating to an average reduction of 9 percent statewide and 11 percent among Long Island school districts. In his recent budget speech, Cuomo said school districts have $1.8 billion in reserves, enough to overcome the $1.5 billion cut in state aid.
"I've been advocating for a statewide freeze in all public salaries, and the governor doing that on a statewide emergency basis. We are in an emergency," said Herricks Superintendent of Schools John Bierwirth. "But instead of beating up on school board and town and villages, saying you've got to go out and do it, why doesn't he do it."
For his part, Bierwirth, whose annual salary is $265,254, said he has taken a wage freeze in the past and is modifying his contract for next year.
One superintendent who asked not to be identified said the attention Cuomo drew to the $200,000 average salaries of Long Island school superintendents was a device to divert attention from the "catastrophic" cuts the governor is seeking to make in the state education budget.
In a memo to Herricks school board and PTA members earlier this week, Bierwirth wrote: "The proposed state aid cut for Herricks for 2011-12 is $1.1 to $1.3 million. We could, as Governor Cuomo has suggested, use an amount equal to that from our unallocated reserve to offset the loss of state aid in order to keep the tax levy from increasing by the same amount. Once we have done that, however, we must use a similar amount from the reserve in 2012-13 or face an immediate increase in the tax levy of 1.55% just to stay even. It would be the same for all subsequent years until we run out of funds."
Herricks has a relatively modest $2.6 million in unrestricted reserves for a district that Bierwirth recently noted runs a lean operation.
That's the common assessment of all superintendents commenting on Cuomo's suggestion and the difficult economic decisions they face as the current budget season commences.
"Obviously, based on the cuts, we're going to have a to look at some of our reserves, but we can't use all of our reserves," said Warren Mierdiercks, superintendent of Schools in the Sewanhaka School District."
Sewanhaka currently has just over $5 million in reserves, according to Mierdiercks.
"Obviously, we're not happy, because reserves are supposed to be reserved for emergency. Perhaps part of our state aid can be reinstated," Mierdiercks said.
Robert Katulak, superintendent of schools in the New Hyde Park-Garden City Park School District, said Cuomo was misleading in his discussion of reserve funds.
"It's an incomplete picture," Katulak said, pointing to restrictions on using capital reserve or unemployment reserve funds. "The only category is the undesignated fund balance. You can't use that because you can't safely do that," Katulak added.
Along with pointing out that unrestricted reserves, superintendents pointed out that those funds are intended to be applied for unanticipated contingencies, emergencies that arise such as school building boilers that conk out. And using those funds are only a stop-gap measure in the midst of a state financial crisis that figures to continue indefinitely.
"That's a one-shot solution. But down the road that presents different problems," East Williston Superintendent of Schools Lorna Lewis said. "The state has reserves it could use. But it chooses not to do so."
Lewis offered to freeze her current annual salary of $223,510 earlier this year, so it will remain at that level for the coming year.
The East Williston School District's unrestricted reserves currently stand at $2 million.