Syracuse School District proposes borrowing $24 million from New York State to fill next year's budget gap

The proposed 2012-2013 budget for the Syracuse School District makes cuts to virtually every department, eliminates over a hundred positions through retirement or attrition and the district expects to lay off fifty-one employees. Even with all those cuts, the proposed budget still had a $24 million budget gap.

To fill the gap, Chief Financial Officer Suzanne Slack and Superintendent Sharon Contreras recommended the district use a controversial tool. New York State law allows school districts to borrow money from the next year's state aid. Contreras and Slack both said they had concerns but proposed borrowing the $24 million from the 2013-2014 budget.

"Obviously it's not the best accounting practice but the alternative is to eliminate 350 positions. I'm not willing to make that recommendation," said Contreras after a budget forum on Tuesday night.

Slack said she hopes the district will be in better financial shape in a few years and will be able to stop borrowing from future state aid. The unusual accounting practice has been legal since 1991. While Syracuse has never used it before, Slack said it has become common for New York City schools.

The proposed 2012-2013 budget would also close Elmwood Elementary. Last year parents fought to keep it open but this year the president of the Elmwood Family Teacher Organization supported closing the school. Twiggy Billue said that after she received more information about low test scores and student achievement at the school, she agreed that students would be better off at buildings with more resources.

"They don't have it in the budget to be able to give them proper tools, the proper classroom pieces, the proper pieces to bring it up to where it needs to be," said Billue. "So this would be the best solution."

ADA-PEP - a program that teaches students about drugs, pregnancy and bullying - would also be cut under the proposed budget. Superintendent Contreras said grant funding for the program had been cut dramatically but current health teachers and social workers would still be able to provide help to students.

Parents at the Tuesday night budget meeting said they knew the district would have to make tough decisions but wanted to be sure their kids weren't lost in all the budget numbers.

"We're talking about millions of dollars, we're talking about state aid, we're talking about equity, we're talking about a large urban school district but we're talking about students," said parent Talina Jones.

The School Board will have time to consider the proposed budget at several meetings over the next few months. A final approved budget is due by June 13th.