Who gets how much money from New York State and why is a hot topic of conversation these days among school districts.
It’s also a bit of a mystery.
As the annual budget wrangling gets going in Albany, the fight over funding is not only about how much the state should allocate for education, but how exactly $27 billion in aid gets divvied up among more than 700 school districts across the state.
State lawmakers are asking if there’s a more equitable way to disburse the money.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo wants more money distributed to the poorest schools in districts with the highest needs.
Meanwhile, the school districts – squeezed between a tax cap and greater student needs – continue to be frustrated by a process that's politically manipulated and provides so much uncertainty from year to year.
“I would even go as far as to use the word confusion,” said Scott Martzloff, superintendent of the Williamsville Central School District. “Maybe that’s the way they wanted it, but I don’t consider it to be healthy.”
“We have no idea one year to the next what we’re going to be dealing with in terms of how much aid we’re getting from the state,” said Joseph R. D’Angelo, superintendent of the Maryvale School District. “We’re just looking for some predictability with our state aid.”
How New York funds education, one of the largest pieces of the state budget, is a complicated conversation that centers around what’s called foundation aid – the major pot of money for school district operating budgets.
After a ruling by New York’s highest court that all students were entitled to a “sound basic education,” the state in 2007 promised to phase in billions more dollars in aid and created a foundation aid formula to distribute funding equitably to school districts.
The formula includes a base cost to educate a student.
Issues like poverty and students learning English as a new language are factored in.
Also considered are differences in costs across regions of the state and how much the local community can be counted on to contribute, based on its wealth.
At least that’s how it was supposed to work.
Tiers, shares and confusion
When the last recession hit, the state couldn’t fully fund those financial promises – a shortfall that's still a subject of debate.
So now, educators and insiders describe a formula that each year is subject to Albany politics – lobbying and budget dealing and decades-old pacts that aren’t written in policy but rooted in practice.
For example, there’s an understanding that districts are “save-harmless,” meaning they won't get less than the year before, even when enrollment drops, said Robert Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.
“The basic way it has worked the past few years is you get what you got last year and then we’ll have a series of calculations to decide what your increase will be for the year ahead,” Lowry said.
That means districts are placed into a series of “tiers” – one for big cities, for example, another for small cities, another based on the property-tax wealth of a district, explained Michael Cornell, superintendent of the Hamburg Central School District.
Those tiers can be reconstructed from year to year to give more to districts with increased enrollment, for instance, or growing poverty or those considered underfunded, Lowry said.
“In any given year, either for political or perfectly legitimate policy reasons, they can target a particular kind of district,” Lowry explained. “In some years, for example, you saw poor, rural districts were doing better and got the sense advocacy made an impact.”
Then, there’s also a long-standing “shares” agreement.
That determines what share – or percentage – of aid increase is given out to each part of the state.
New York City and Long Island are promised more than half; the Big 4 – Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Yonkers – get 8%; and the Lower Hudson Valley, 6%.
The rest of the state splits about a third, perpetuating the old debate about whether upstate gets its fair share.
“Those tiers are used to effectuate the regional shares,” Cornell said.
“In reality, the shares and the tax cap make it very, very difficult for Western New York to make ends meet," Cornell said. "Right now, our net increase in state aid in the governor’s budget is $46,000.”
The process is repeated when the governor's budget goes to the State Legislature, Cornell said.
The way the process works helps explain some of the frustration from school districts after they find out what they might expect in aid for the coming year under the governor's budget.
“There’s no such thing as a formula. It’s not being used. It’s not being applied,” said Carolyn Robertson, business administrator for the Cleveland Hill Union Free School District. “Each year they just come up with a whole new methodology. They basically kind of work the numbers to get the aid divided up the way they want to across the state.”
"Yes, they use it," Lowry said of the formula, "but it's kind of minimally. There have been years where it has not been used at all."
The conversation about who gets how much and why has picked up steam over the past couple of years as the governor has proposed a more progressive aid formula.
His proposals have raised more uncertainty – and concern – among some school districts and educational groups.
Cuomo focuses on educational equity by allocating 85% of the increase in foundation aid to high-need districts. Yet questions remain about who is getting the help.
“My question is where is the money to support the poor schools,” said Jon MacSwan, superintendent of Cleveland Hill. “We’re one of the poorest in the county and we’re not getting it.”
Another big change recommended by the governor is lumping into foundation aid 10 expense-based aids, like money for textbooks or BOCES services or library materials, that in the past have been partially reimbursed to districts.
“It’s making it look like we’re getting significantly more foundation aid than previously, which isn’t in fact the case,” said Kimberly Moritz, superintendent for Springville-Griffith Institute Central Institute.
More need vs. tax cap
Cornell, the Hamburg superintendent, also believes districts are raising the issue of foundation aid because of a culmination of a few things.
Greater need among students has become a common refrain in districts both big and small, poor and wealthy, while an imposed tax cap limits how much they can raise from local taxpayers.
The state, meanwhile, is facing a $6.1 billion deficit, and school districts will be lucky to get half as much as they want for next year.
“To be honest, we have a perfect storm here,” said Sean Croft, superintendent of the Starpoint Central School District.
Unlike most school districts in the region, Croft said, Starpoint is experiencing growth in enrollment, which could mean greater expenses for the district.
“Obviously, our budget, just because of the cost of living, usually rises between 2.5% and 2.7%,” said Mark Laurrie, Niagara Falls superintendent. “Money goes to that first.”
Issues like school security are still a focus for districts. But maybe the biggest need is providing more mental-health support for students. That includes additional school psychologists and social workers, or more professional development to help staff assist students.
“That is clearly the No. 1 priority,” MacSwan said.
Those cries from school districts are being heard by lawmakers in both houses in Albany, where members of the State Senate have sponsored regional roundtables on how to achieve greater educational equity in school funding by fixing the foundation aid formula.
Assemblyman Sean Ryan, a Buffalo Democrat and member of the Assembly's Education Committee, said under the current system, large, urban districts with high poverty – like Buffalo – tend to do well, as do very wealthy districts downstate.
Those who don’t do as well are the smaller city school districts and those districts with low to moderate wealth, Ryan said.
“Unfortunately,” Ryan said, “that’s every district in Western New York.”