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Schenectady school district brings its case to feds

Complaint alleges aid formula favors whiter schools

Friday, December 13, 2013
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— The Schenectady City School District’s discrimination complaint against the state is now officially in the hands of the federal government.

Superintendent Laurence Spring hand-delivered the complaint Friday to the U.S. Department of Education in New York City.

The complaint alleges that the state’s school-aid formula has been unintentionally implemented in such a way that schools with mostly minority students get less of the aid they need than mostly white schools.

In New York City, Spring was met by the Office of Civil Rights program manager and director of the regional office, which gave him hope that the complaint will be taken seriously.

“I had the impression that they thought of this as pretty high-priority,” he said.

A spokesman for the Office of Civil Rights said the office would make a statement at some point about the issue, but none was issued Friday.

Spring said officials told him they would have to get permission from their superiors in Washington before beginning the investigation.

“This is politically sensitive,” he said.

Within 45 days, they will tell the district whether they are opening an investigation, he said.

Normally, investigations take as much as 180 days, but Spring said they warned him that this complaint is complex and may take longer. He said they seemed eager to start work on it.

“They’ve been actually kind of looking for an opportunity to see if state aid was racially distributed. No one has brought a complaint like this before,” he said, adding that a similar complaint from Texas was withdrawn when the complainant decided to go through the court system instead.

In New York, this issue has already gone through the court system. The Campaign for Fiscal Equity spearheaded a 13-year court battle that led to a state aid formula intended to fairly distribute the aid each school district receives to educate its students.

School districts were rated based on the cost of educating their students and the ability of their property owners to pay for that education. Cities with entrenched poverty, like Schenectady, were rated as needing the most aid: Poor students are considered more expensive to educate, and poor property owners can pay for less of that education.

State officials agreed to ramp up their aid payments over a four-year period. By 2010, every district was supposed to have the amount of money considered necessary for a “sound, basic education.” But that never happened.

Most school districts are not receiving the amount the state formula says they should. However, Spring’s calculations indicate that schools with many non-white students receive a much smaller percentage of their aid than predominantly white schools.

Spring said federal officials he spoke to were impressed by his calculations.

“They said, ‘On face value, you have definitely very valid reasons to be complaining,’ ” Spring said. “I left pretty heartened.”

State Sen. Hugh Farley, R-Niskayuna, said he could not comment on the state aid formula because he considered it a matter under litigation.

“The formula is very complicated, there’s no question about it,” he said.

But he said the complaint wouldn’t have happened if the state had had enough money to fund every district fully.

“The reason all this happened is the state got into financial difficulties a few years back,” he said.

He added that he tried to get the state to give more aid to Schenectady.

“I have fought and fought for the Schenectady school district, and I have brought them extra money, year after year,” he said.

This year, he gave the Niskayuna Central School District $275,000 in “bullet aid,” though he also continued to push for the state Department of Education to release $3.8 million in withheld transportation aid for Schenectady, to no avail.

 
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