Expecting bad news for a while, area school districts were not surprised that the governor's budget office announced it is holding back 15 percent of remaining funds for all state agencies, perhaps meaning more cuts for schools before the end of the fiscal year in June. But there certainly was some relief in Education Commissioner Eric Smith's assurance that districts would be fully funded through May.
Superintendent MaryEllen Elia said in a memo to staffers that the holdback could amount to a $14 million spending cut beyond the $150 million shortfall the district already faced.
"Because of that, I believe more strongly than ever that steps we have taken have been absolutely necessary, and in fact we will need to do more," Elia wrote.
She remained hopeful that federal stimulus funds might ease the pain slightly. But she noted that most of that money is to be spent in specific ways and it "won't solve our problems."
Superintendent Heather Fiorentino heard rumors of the 15 percent cut early Thursday. She wasn't terribly alarmed, though. Constant threats to the district's funding stream prompted the administration and School Board to plan for this, she said.
The district already had cut its budget close to the $9.2 million that the latest plan would claim by doing such things as trimming department budgets, freezing vacant jobs and renegotiating professional contracts.
"We're still ahead of the state in being prepared for these cuts," Fiorentino said. "Next year will be a different story."
Deputy superintendent Harry Brown said the district already had been bracing for as much as a $107 million budget shortfall. But the news "absolutely changed the face" of what district finance officers had been planning to present to School Board members at a budget workshop scheduled for Tuesday.
The district's main concern, Brown said, was how the holdback might affect next year's budget. Receipt of Smith's memo "took a little gravity from the situation."
Said Brown: "The situation may even get better by the time Tuesday rolls around."