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School aid from state up $1 billion, but districts worry it's not enough

The annual two-and-a-half-month do-si-do over how much money the governor and State Legislature should put toward public education in New York has begun.

Not only are school districts disappointed by the funding levels proposed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, but they’re wary about his proposal that would force districts to shift more money to their poorest schools.

Cuomo sees it as righting a wrong.

Some education stakeholders see it as a pattern of taking away local decision-making.

And so goes the yearly dance, which started Tuesday when the governor proposed a $956 million increase in school aid plus a $37 million increase in charter school tuition and facilities reimbursement and Smart Schools Bond Act debt service for a total of a $1 billion increase in education aid.

While total aid would go up 3.6 percent, foundation aid – which drives most school operations – would increase 1.9 percent. Some are calling that "woefully inadequate."

Like prior years, look for the State Legislature to increase money for schools.

"We’re going to continue to make the effort to pump more money into foundation aid," Assemblyman Sean Ryan, D-Buffalo, said.

Here's what your school district would get under Cuomo's proposed budget

School districts were still trying to figure out on Wednesday exactly what the governor’s budget meant for them. But some didn’t like what they were seeing.

“I can’t figure the state aid formula out. I should know what it is from year to year. Why do I have to wait until Jan. 15 or 16 and then we have to play the whole game with the State Legislature?” said Mark Laurrie, superintendent of the Niagara Falls City School District. “Let’s have some predictability.”

"It's very distressing. I look at these (state aid) runs and say I don’t know how we can do better for students," said Wayne Drescher, business official at Cheektowaga-Sloan Union Free School District, which would see less aid under the proposal. "You get a run and it just takes your breath away."

In Buffalo, district officials were still running through the numbers Wednesday, but were hopeful that the State Legislature will end up boosting aid, as it has done in years past.

“We’ve got the rest of January, February and March where all the different constituents are going to do their best to lobby. The district does that as well,” said Geoffrey Pritchard, chief financial officer for Buffalo Public Schools. “We’ll let them know what our needs are and continue to push for as much as we can.”

Governor proposes nearly $1 billion more for schools

The governor also has proposed three items to increase equity:

  • Legislation requiring school districts to dedicate part of their foundation aid increase to address inequities between their neediest schools and their other schools, based on a plan to be approved by the State Education Department.
  • An additional $1.8 million to subsidize Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate exam fees for low-income students and $1 million in grants to provide advanced courses for schools that provide few or no advanced courses.
  • Funding for support programs to train teachers and administrators in alternatives to student suspension or expulsion to break the school-to-prison pipeline.

While the governor’s equity proposal was meant for poorer school districts like Niagara Falls, Laurrie was leery. He thinks the governor is overreaching.

“That should be left to local control. We know the schools best,” Laurrie said. “That’s what they pay me for as superintendent.”

Similar sentiments were echoed throughout the state.

The state gives 70 percent of its aid to poor school districts, and assumed that money was going to the poorest schools, Cuomo said Monday. But, the governor said, some larger school districts spend less on poorer schools, and the opposite should happen. The Alliance for Quality Education disputes that conclusion.

"The needs in the poorer school districts and the poorer schools are greater. Those children have more obstacles than the children in the richer schools," Cuomo said.

The additional resources must go to the poorer schools and the poorer students, which is education equity, he said. But the inequity is not among schools in a district, but between districts, according to the Alliance for Quality Education.

“The path to equity in education is through fully funding the Foundation Aid formula," Jasmine Gripper, legislative director for the alliance, said in a press release.

“We appreciate the governor’s desire to direct funds to the neediest schools, but we disagree with the notion that a state formula devised in Albany can distribute funds to thousands of individual school buildings more fairly and effectively than the locally elected board of education in those communities,” Timothy G. Kremer, executive director of the New York State School Boards Association, said in a statement.

A majority of funding disparities between school buildings are the result of salary differences for more senior teachers and the location of special-needs programs, said Michael Borges, executive director of the Association of School Business Officials of New York.

"If the governor wants this much control over how school districts allocate their funds, he should consider running for school board," Borges said in a statement.

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia and Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa said while the governor’s equity formula is “no doubt well intended” they were concerned about the level of state investment to implement those equity initiatives.

The state Education Department and the Board of Regents recommended twice as much for education as the $1 billion increase proposed by the governor.

“We are extremely alarmed with the recommended funding level for New York State’s schools,” Elia and Rosa said in a joint statement. “The proposed $338 million Foundation Aid increase falls far short of what schools need to achieve equity, or even keep pace with inflation and demographic changes.”

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