Aid cuts have uneven impact, report shows

Granville Superintendent Mark Bessen has been right all along.

Earlier this year, as the School Board was trying to cope with state budget cuts, Bessen was adamant that the upstate districts were taking an unfair percentage of the cuts.

Now, an expert in state aid says Bessen was right on the mark.

Dr. Rick Timbs , who created the Statewide School Finance Consortium to focus on the plight of central New York rural, poor schools to the attention of Albany, has turned his attention to other rural districts, including those in northern Washington County, and recently released a comparison of the cuts on downstate and upstate districts.

While a district like Granville reeled from the blow of a $1.5 million state-aid hit, a supposedly proportional cut to a similar-size downstate district had far little impact.

“If the governor and the legislature don’t look at this and do something about it they’re going to create an apartheid of learning where those learning above the Tappan Zee Bridge won’t have the same opportunities as those living below it if they don’t start fixing this sooner than later,” he said. 

Valedictorians and salutatorians were having trouble getting into college because their school’s course offerings were so diminished by the lack of rational funding those top students were being turned away, he said.

“The state is responsible for all of their children and they need to decide how they’re going to make sure that all education is equitable so every kid can compete for college placement and for jobs,” Bessen said.

Bessen said Dr. Timbs started out in central New York advocating for schools in the same boat as those in Washington County, but now others are jumping on the band wagon. Looking at the agrarian belt through the state and into the northern tier, all of those schools are feeling an impact unknown downstate. “We’re all feeling it because we’re very dependent on that state aid,” he said.  

“He’s fighting the fight for any high needs rural school district to make sure schools are funded fairly and equitably,” Bessen said. 

As a part of the effort to stem the tide of continued cuts to education funding many area boards of education decided recently to join the consortium.

The purpose of the consortium would be to unite the constituencies associated with all of the rural school districts in pressing for fairer distribution of state financial aid for school districts.

“We’re doing what we can to get the information out,” Bessen said. Bessen said Timbs’ work provides a valuable tool for explaining the impact of the aid cuts to the people who most need to know the impact they have – regional politicians.  

“We use this information to share with people like Sen. Betty Little so she can understand what happens when state funding is cut like this,” he said.

But during a recent meeting with area representatives, Bessen said he thought the state aid inequalities are only now being well enough explained to Little or Rep. Tony Jordan. Bessen said with the word getting out and into the right ears, he remains hopeful for a more equitable future. “We’re hoping that the governor restores the four percent he said he would and that, maybe, if the right voices are getting to his ear maybe they’ll look at doing more for the rural high needs districts,” he said.

“I think a lot of legislators were unaware of how it worked and what the formula was; this year I don’t think they’ll accept the three-men-in-a-room story like they did last year,” Bessen said.   

For 2010-2011, the Westchester school district of North Salem, which serves eight fewer students than Granville, offer contrasting school finance numbers that are stunning.

North Salem’s budget was more than half again as much as Granville’s at $38,088,703 or $13,872,150 higher than Granville’s $24,216,553 budget.

While Granville raises approximately 23 percent of its budget through property taxes collecting $5,516,416 from the people in the district, North Salem raises 88 percent, or $33,579,993 through property taxes.

The loss in state aid however, was $485,823 or about 1.3 percent of the budget for North Salem while Granville took a $1,564,863 or 6.5 percent hit.

According to Timbs, that equals a $1,166 cut per student in Granville and $364 in North Salem.

The average cut across the state was $937 placing Granville $229 above the average while North Salem was $572 below the average.

 

Looking at Whitehall

 

In a comparison of Whitehall to East Moriches from Suffolk County, a district with 14 fewer students, their budget are more than $10 million greater than Whitehall’s.

While Whitehall lost the equivalent of $1,873 per student as a part of the $1,427,355 aid loss East Moriches lost $920, $17 below the average statewide loss; Whitehall was $937 above the state average.

Whitehall Superintendent of Schools James F. Watson said the state aid cuts have hit his district just as they have other rural schools – hard. “We’ve cut about $1.4 million and this year looks like it will be significantly bad again,” he said. Watson said, and the other superintendents interviewed agreed, the district’s interest in joining the consortium is to make the voice of the poor, rural school heard in Albany. 

“There really is a disconnect in the state aid formula, particularly when it comes to poor, rural schools. State aid is driven by a combination of wealth and property values and that reflects positively toward Long Island and the city; they’re able to sustain their budgets while we …are much harder hit by any tax impact,” Watson said.

Watson said he has already committed the district to joining the consortium when BOCES makes the option available.

“We’re interested because numbers are power. If we can add to the numbers there’s going to be a better chance the message will get shared with Albany,” he said.

The immediate future does not look positive for any aid formula fixes, however, Watson said.

“I can’t imagine anything will happen this particular cycle because in Albany they have their own financial issues,” he said. Watson said with so little time left in the budget cycle he had doubts a problem which has existed for years can be fixed early enough to impact the 2012 budget, but the plan remains to be persistent and strive to keep the issue in the forefront. 

 

Hartford also hard hit

 

For other area districts and their comparable sized counterparts’ downstate the numbers do not get better.

Comparing Hartford, with an enrollment of 495 students, to the next closest downstate district, Suffolk County’s East Quogue serving 87 fewer students, the financial differences are once again glaring. East Quogue’s $21,389,881 budget is just over double Hartford’s $10,313,959.

While Hartford raised nearly 28 percent, or $2,852,950, of its budget from the tax levy East Quogue raised $18,218,900 or 85 percent of their budget from taxes.

The loss is state aid however, was $1,024,771, or 10 percent from Hartford’s bottom line, versus $250,641 to East Quogue, about 1.2 percent.

According to Timbs the drop equals the single largest cut per pupil in Washington County at $2,070 for Hartford, while East Quogue lost $614 per student.

Hartford’s cut per student was $1,134 above the state average while in East Quogue the cut was $322 less than the $937 state average.

“I’ve read through it,” Hartford Superintendent Tom Abraham said Tuesday regarding the consortium report.

“When you look at it, I guess it shows there’s a disconnect between how state aid is distributed and what the governor pontificates about when it comes to school aid,” he said.

When administration officials talk about money-saving techniques like administrative efficiency, Abraham names off a list of ‘hats’ he already wears within the district including assistant transportation supervisor and says there’s no more consolidation to be done.

“He talks as if he knows what’s going on, but I think that comes from a very narrow view of what’s happening south of Albany,” he said. 

Abraham said the report provides a basis for starting the overdue conversation about establishing a fair system for distributing school aid, but at the same time he holds out little hope for the near future.

“I think it opens the door to having a more logical discussion about state funding for education especially in light of the two percent tax cap, which isn’t really a two percent tax cap. My view is that there are underlying issues they want to address and that’s consolidation,” he said.

Abraham said in his opinion it’s easier for Albany to put districts at financial risk and force them to look at options including consolidation rather than to legislate the changes they seek.

Even those changes reflect a lack of understanding of the fundamental issues facing schools upstate, Abraham said.

While it might make sense to look at consolidating schools in the western part of the state, there is simply too much country between school in most places in this area, Abraham said.

“There has to be a change in the way schools are funded we can’t rely strictly on property taxes,” Abraham said. 

 

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