Needy, Rural N.Y. Districts Fight For Funding Changes
New York school leaders, particularly those in small, rural districts, say they're running out of ways to cut their budgets while maintaining educational quality, and they're pushing hard for changes to the state's funding system.
Educators say the way the state distributes education dollars ensures students in wealthy school districts have a competitive edge over those in low- to moderate-income districts, many of which are rural. The state's Rural Schools Association has about 300 school districts and Boards of Cooperative Educational Services members; the state has 721 school districts.
The issue has become especially hot since Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, proposed using $250 million in new state money for competitive grants rather than direct aid to districts. He said the proposal is designed to "encourage school districts to implement innovative approaches to achieve academic gains and management efficiency," but it's drawing harsh criticism from educators.
School officials say they've already made difficult cuts—closing schools, depleting reserve funds, laying off staff, increasing class size, and slashing offerings such as music, arts and sports. Some say local districts could be facing insolvency within the next couple of years.
"If these were better times—and schools were not coming off three or four years of aid reductions—a competitive-grant program could be a great way to stimulate progress," wrote Timothy Kremer, executive director of the New York State School Boards Association, in a letter to the editor in The Post Standard, in Syracuse, N.Y. "But this year, the Legislature should seek to redirect the governor's proposed $250 million grant program toward further basic operating aid, especially for high-needs districts."
One of the rural districts that could be facing structural deficit, essentially bankruptcy, by the end of 2012-13 is Broadalbin-Perth Central Schools in Broadalbin, N.Y. Its superintendent, Stephen Tomlinson, wrote an open letter to Gov. Cuomo that was published on Education Speaks, a Web site dedicated to public education issues relative to New York's Greater Capital Region and beyond.
In the letter, Tomlinson said the district is "dangerously close to being unable to provide our students with the sound, basic education that is guaranteed to them by the State Constitution."
He details the cost-saving efforts the district has made, and forewarns about potential cuts to close the budget gap for 2012-13, such as eliminating art and music instruction in elementary schools, French as a foreign language, upper-level Spanish classes, social workers, and all interscholastic athletics and extracurricular programs.
He asked that some or all of the $250 million be distributed to the state's needy schools rather than offered up as competitive grants. And he asked that the state fix its funding formula so more state aid goes to needy schools.
That same message was repeated by about 240 educators and students at the Central New York School Boards Association's annual Legislative Breakfast this past weekend, where school leaders repeatedly described the state's education aid system as inequitable, discriminatory, and unfair, according to a story in The Citizen, based in Auburn, N.Y.
Just last week, I blogged about this same issue (school funding) but with a different outcome. Vermont, a rural state, has figured out an equitable system, according to a draft of a consultant's report. Many states struggle to do that.