School districts in New York are finding that mistakes made when filing for state aid that were once resolved without fanfare are seemingly insurmountable in a fiscal crisis.
Last week Gov. David Paterson vetoed a bill that would have made $225,000 of capital expenditures by the Oyster Bay-East Norwich Central School District eligible for state reimbursement.
School district assistant superintendent for finance and operations Christopher Van Cott said that the costs were from projects undertaken before he began his current job three years ago.
"When I came here there were a number of capital projects that were filed with the state where the final cost reports weren't submitted, so I called the state and asked them which ones were missing and began filing," Van Cott said. "I tried to clean it all up."
The problem was that filing deadlines had passed on contracts for the projects, and the state Department of Education said three of them would need special legislation to be eligible. In the past this hasn't been a problem, advocates and officials said.
"Historically these have been approved by the Legislature and then signed into law," said David Albert, spokesman for the New York State School Boards Association, which represents more than 700 school districts. "People make mistakes, but they're minor, they're clerical, and they shouldn't result in the loss of state aid for school districts."
Last year, Paterson vetoed similar bills for 30 districts across the state related to filing problems involving school construction contracts, transportation aid and overpayment of aid, Albert said.
"It's going to impact them because it means that whatever amount of money they expected to get from the state is not coming," Albert said. "They're going to have to pay their vendors and contractors ... whether that is raising taxes or using some kind of fund that's available for that purpose [or] borrowing money."
In his veto message, the governor said that the bill would have allowed the school district to be reimbursed for expenses and contracts that violated bidding and cost-reporting requirements. Paterson wrote that he had vetoed many similar bills in the past because they would have imposed additional financial obligations on the state.
"While I am sympathetic to the local school districts that have requested that the state validate these contracts and expenses, this bill and other similar bills would either require the state to forgo the recoupment of aid wrongfully paid or to pay aid to which the districts are not legally entitled," Paterson wrote.
Carl Thurnau, director of facilities for the Department of Education, said that filing problems and legislation to resolve them has been common. In the current fiscal environment, a school district that made an error that requires legislation isn't going to get help until the economy improves.
"At this point the district is not going to get the money," said Thurnau, speaking generally. "We do expect that in the future they will because the Legislature's not going to penalize these taxpayers for the mistake of an administrator in a particular district."
For Oyster Bay-East Norwich CSD, located in Nassau County on Long Island, the veto means that they may have to repay the state for aid already received over the years, Van Cott said.
"It's not tremendous," he said. "We are considered to be a wealthy district so our building aid ratio is pretty low, but it's still $225,000."
The district sold $5.2 million of bonds last year.