Rural school districts saw the smallest increases in state aid in the state budget passed last week — even as many suburban and city districts saw increases of 10 percent or more.
Education groups and advocates widely lauded the education portion of the budget, which increased aid over $1.5 billion statewide. But an emphasis on ending the Gap Elimination Adjustment — budget claw-backs that mostly hurt moderate- to high-income districts — and a foundation aid disbursement that benefitted small city schools, left rural districts lagging.
“You are happy with additional of amounts revenue whether it’s 1 percent or whatever the case may be,” said Robert DeLilli, superintendent at Johnstown Central School District, which had one of the smallest increases in the region. “But looking at that amount compared to other districts we are not smiling ear to ear.”
Across the Capital Region, suburban school districts like Niskayuna and North Colonie saw as much as 20 percent increases in base state aid — thanks to the restoration of GEA cuts. And small city districts like Schenectady, Amsterdam and Albany saw increases of around 10 percent — thanks to a boost in foundation aid.
However, many rural districts across Schoharie, Montgomery and Fulton counties saw aid increases of around 4 percent and less than 3 percent in some cases. Johnstown schools had one of the lowest base state aid increases in the region at 2.7 percent. Middleburgh and Sharon Springs were also less than 3 percent.
(Base state aid percentage increases were calculated by comparing a district’s 2015-2016 foundation aid minus GEA cuts to the foundation aid and GEA restoration in the state budget passed last week.)
David Little, executive director of the Rural Schools Association, said the state’s education funding formula and political inertia around schools spending disadvantages rural school districts but that the restoration of GEA — which this year redounded most to the benefit of more affluent suburban districts — magnified those disparities.
“It has created a one-year aberration in our usually poor method of distribution,” Little said. “It has exacerbated it.”
Rural superintendents said they agreed it was important to restore GEA and put that argument in the rear-view mirror, turning their attention to the state’s funding formula and arguing that attention be paid to special circumstances of rural districts.
“There was an increase in foundation aid; it wasn’t a windfall but it was a step toward equity regarding funding for us,” Fort Plain Superintendent David Ziskin said of his district’s 4 percent state aid increase.
In many cases, poor, rural districts face the same challenges that poor, urban districts face: drug use, teen pregnancy, a lack of parental supervision, a high need of mental and social supports for students. But for rural districts, those challenges are exacerbated by a lack of nearby service providers and community partners, compounding the costs of providing those services to students.
“It’s a matter of scale; the issues for rural districts and urban districts in many instances are identical,” Little said. “Providing those services can be done much more efficiently in highly populated areas.”
A smaller district’s budget can also be swayed dramatically by the needs of just a single special education student, said David Halloran, superintendent at Oppenheim-Ephratah-St. Johnsville Central School District.
“We are a long way from Amsterdam and families may not have the gas money or vehicle to get them there,” Halloran said.
Little said many rural districts have been hurt by declining enrollment — which impacts state aid — and sliding assessment values, which reduces the already diminished local tax base. As population becomes more diffuse in rural New York, the challenges of rural districts grow as their political clout wanes.
The districts also said it is hard to find the resources to provide the variety of class and program offerings they would like — such as enrichment and AP classes, STEM programs and extracurricular activities.
Assemblyman Pete Lopez, R-Schoharie, said it is a constant struggle to get fellow lawmakers to understand the realities of rural poverty. He said he hopes the push to develop community schools in urban areas — which refocuses school locations for services that go beyond just education — will extend to rural communities as well.
“We are overshadowed by urban and suburban interests,” Lopez said. “They are not trying to be mean; we are just not in their view. Call it deny and neglect or self-serving interest, but rural areas are struggling and that’s on every issue.”
Reach Gazette reporter Zachary Matson at 395-3120, [email protected] or @zacharydmatson on Twitter.