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Upstate Schools Look For More Budget Breathing Room

Last year, several upstate school districts were criticized New York Comptroller Tom DiNapoli for exceeding the cap on their unexpended surplus fund, also known as a rainy day fund.

Now, a pair Southern Tier lawmakers are trying to raise that cap: Republican Fred Akshar in the Senate and Democrat Donna Lupardo in the Assembly.

Here's why the fund is important: this past school year, the Southern Tier got hammered with snow. Which is something Union-Endicott Superintendent Suzanne McLeod knows all too well.

“This past year? Salt? Oh my gosh,” McLeod said.

If a district goes over budget on something like salt it can dip into its rainy day fund. If it goes under budget. The surplus can go into the rainy day fund.

Here’s the rub, a district’s rainy day fund can’t be more than 4% of its entire budget. McLeod says that's too low.

“We’re an organization with 800-and-something employees, with 4,000 students and there are lot of moving parts here," McLeod said. "Things can happen that you don’t anticipate and haven’t budgeted for after a community has already approved a budget.”

Union-Endicott is one of nine upstate schools that was criticized by the comptroller for exceeding the cap last year. But, the legislation in Albany would raise that cap from four to 10% of a budget.

Two versions of the bill are pending: one in the state Senate and one in the Assembly. The Assembly bill is still in committee, but the Senate measure made it out of committee, passing on an 8-1 vote. The one senator that voted against it said he's worried districts will overcharge residents and just build up their surplus fund. Others disagree with that.

“The evidence that districts abuse this is really, really thin and there’s not very many examples," said John Sipple, the Director of the New York State Center for Rural Schools. "But the evidence that districts are constrained by this is very, very common."

Time is running out for this legislation to pass. The session ends on June 21st.