Area school leaders cry foul on state aid

Joan Scannell of Mayfield is worried about her local school district’s financial viability. Meanwhile, her sister, who is president of the Board of Education in the Hendrick Hudson School District in Westchester County, isn’t sweating at all.

The difference, Scannell said, is Mayfield is heavily dependent on state aid, whereas her sister’s more affluent area isn’t.

According to the Mayfield Central School District’s website, the district faces at least a $560,000 gap between revenues and expenditures in 2013-14. It’s had to cut 31 employees to balance the budget over the past three years, and it’s lost more than $3.4 million in state funding since 2009-10 in the face of rising costs.

“You cut our aid, and where do we get the money from?” asked Scannell, chairwoman of the Mayfield Advocacy Committee, which is pushing for more state aid and more equitable distribution of that aid.

In his State of the State address this week, Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed several education reforms, but changes to the school-aid distribution formula were not among them.

“In the last five years, small, rural districts have gotten less state aid than wealthier districts,” said Dan M. Russom, superintendent of the Oppenheim-Ephratah Central School District, which is merging with the St. Johnsville district.

Patrick Michel, superintendent of the Hamilton-Fulton-Montgomery Board of Cooperative Educational Services, said it more starkly: “Your ZIP code determines your access to educational opportunity.”

Michel called the state-aid program “a regressive system.

“The districts up here need the money desperately,” but the money flows to districts that have less need, he said.

And there is less state money to be had in general. The Regents Proposal on State Aid to School Districts for the School Year 2013-14 says in 2007, the state enacted “a new Foundation Aid formula which consolidated approximately 30 categories of aid into a single formula and provided for a more equitable approach to distributing State Aid.”

It says the plan was to phase in more than $5 billion in new operating aid over four years, but in 2008-10 that aid was frozen. Even worse, the state cut back on its aid to balance its own budget through what was called Gap Elimination Adjustments.

This money was offset in part by the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (more commonly called the stimulus program) under President Barack Obama). This cushioned the blow somewhat – while it lasted – but state aid still fell below 2008-10 levels, the gap-elimination loss to schools was $2.2 billion, and Foundation Aid fell $5.5 billion below the full-implementation goal, the Regents say.

While the decrease in state aid hit all districts, poorer districts are being hurt disproportionately by the 2 percent property-tax cap and the School Tax Relief program, referred to as STAR.

Since the percentage cap is affected by the previous year’s tax levy, “[The] wealthiest districts would be allowed a levy increase that is approximately nine times greater than the poorest districts, ” based on 2009-10 figures, the Regents say. Similarly, they say, since STAR is based on property values, “low need districts receive[d] the largest School Tax Relief (STAR) per pupil” in 2011-12.

“This [STAR] is one of the things that’s killing us [rural districts],” said Bruce Frazer, executive director of the Rural Schools Association of New York State, based at Cornell University in Ithaca.

He calls the whole state-aid funding system “foolishness.” He said studies done by Bruce Baker of Rutgers University show that while New York state is fourth in the amount of money it spends on education, it is 45th out of 50 states in progressivity – its support for the neediest districts.

Rick Timbs, executive director of the Statewide School Finance Consortium in East Syracuse, has been studying the school-aid issue for some time. He said “there is no correlation between state funding and the wealth and poverty” of districts.

The consortium has issued a 64-page white paper titled “The Numbers Don’t Lie: the Current Crisis of New York State School District Finances.” The consortium purports to show the disconnect between state aid compared with district students in poverty. It rates districts using a “combined wealth ratio” or CWR, an index that considers the three-year average percentage of students K-6 in the federal school lunch program, compared with district wealth, measured in combined income and property values in 2012-13. The state average CWR?is 1.0.

A few examples of how local districts stack up against some in other areas:

  • ?The Gloversville Enlarged School District had a CWR ratio of 0.338 and a school lunch percentage of 0.68. It got 68 percent of its Foundation Aid.

Meanwhile, the numbers for the Carle Place school district in Nassau County were 1.64, 0.122 and 68 percent, respectively.

  • ?The Fort Plain Central School district’s numbers were 0.369, 0.66 and 78 percent

The Rhinebeck district, in Dutchess County had these numbers: 2.02, 0.11 and 78 percent.

  • ?Mayfield’s numbers were 0.633, 0.38 and 99 percent, and Oppenheim-Ephratah’s are 0.523, 0.54 and 99 percent.

The Garden City district on Long Island had these numbers: 2.45, 0.001 and 99 percent.

“It’s obvious that this is grossly inequitable,” said Timbs, adding that it’s not an upstate-downstate issue, because both areas have a mix of district wealth and poverty.

Rich or poor, school districts face cost increases, especially employee health care and retirement and energy costs, and school districts have been reducing spending because of limited resources, but, at the same time, their fund balances also have declined, the Regents point out.

Also, all districts are required to comply with state mandates that consume time, money and plenty of paperwork, said Laura Campione Lawrence, superintendent of the St. Johnsville Central School District in Montgomery County, which is merging with Oppenheim-Ephratah in Fulton County. The state will give the merged district increased aid that will gradually decline.

A few recent examples of mandates are the Annual Professional Performance Review, a rating of teachers; Student Learning Objectives, which sets goals for students in various grades; and Summit of Assessments, an evaluation of student progress.

While she said her district is financially stable and “definitely not in dire straits,” the district officials know the merger aid won’t last forever and always are looking for ways to economize, such as sharing busing with Fort Plain and Canajoharie and eventually Oppenheim-Ephratah.

“Even with the merger, we’re still looking at cost-efficient, shared services,”?she said.

The governor recently indicated he realizes the needs of school districts are different, and school officials and legislators are waiting to see how he addresses disparities in his proposed budget, which is expected to be released later this month.

State Sen. Hugh T. Farley, R-Niskayuna, said he has been very concerned about “the inequities in distribution of school aid.”

“A lot of rural districts are very, very needy,” Farley said. “The governor has to take the lead on this. We have to wait and see what the governor is going to propose in his budget.”

But Farley also noted the state has taken a financial hit from superstrong Sandy.

Realistically, Russom said, “there’s not a pool of money out there,” so the governor will have to take from the rich and give to the poor.

“That’s going to take a lot of political courage,” he said.

Eric rentaler is a news editor with The Leader-Herald. He can be reached at [email protected].

By -