Capital Region

Biggest education investment in state history bolsters all districts – but some more than others

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A $1.4 billion down payment on fully funding the state’s core education funding formula by the 2023-2024 school year will boost state aid to many suburban and urban districts by 10 percent or more, while mostly rural districts will see increases of around 3 percent.

State lawmakers in the state budget passed Tuesday night committed to fully fund state foundation aid over the next three years – a state formula used to determine district funding amounts by accounting for poverty levels, students with special learning needs, regional costs difference and other factors. The commitment was hailed as a major achievement for education advocates and will result in tens of millions of dollars flowing into Schenectady, Amsterdam and other districts across the region over the coming years.

But due to a history of sliding student enrollment in many rural districts and the particular challenges of providing an education to small student populations spread across large geographic areas, rural districts won’t see the same largesse as their urban and suburban counterparts as lawmakers make good on the funding promise.

The bulk of the region’s smallest and most rural districts are in line to receive a foundation aid increase of around 3 percent next school year. Canajoharie, Corinth, Duanesburg, Fort Plain, Mayfield, Middleburgh and Schoharie can all expect a 3 percent increase in core state aid next year – which in many cases marks a larger increase than those districts have received in recent years.

By comparison, though, Niskayuna and North Colonie will all see their foundation aid boosted 20 percent or more this year under the budget passed this week. Schenectady, Amsterdam and Albany districts are all set to receive foundation aid increases of just over 10 percent.

“I do think that the way (lawmakers) allowed this to play out for virtually half of the districts in the state, our rural districts, is deplorable,” said David Little, executive director of the Rural Schools Association, a statewide organization that advocates on behalf of rural school districts. “Their ignorance of the conditions in rural schools is inexcusable.”

The deep differences may be partly the function of a cold, hard political reality: Democrats that hale largely from urban centers across the state – especially New York City – dominate the Legislature.

But the rural districts also suffer from years of falling enrollment, which when added to a formula that distributes aid on a per-pupil basis lowers how much those districts are owed. Many of those districts have been considered fully funded under the formula for years, receiving annual minimum increases in state aid as lawmakers look to “hold harmless” districts so they don’t receive less state aid from one year to the next – even if that’s what the formula calls for. It’s not clear how the increases for these districts will be handled in future years.

The strict calculus of the formula, though, may not account for the actual economics at play in rural school districts. Little argued that rural districts – regardless of how many or few students they have – are still required to provide the same academic program under state standards and cover the special education needs of students. He said the fixed costs of buildings and other obligations don’t fall at a controllable pace for each marginal student the district no longer has to educate.

Rural districts, for example, must provide an algebra class regardless of whether there will be 30 students in the class or three students in the class, and the district has to pay for the classroom, teacher and other costs necessary for any single class.

Little also argued that rising poverty in rural communities is not fully accounted for under the current formula because the formula is based on poverty counts from over a decade ago. He said lawmakers could have worked to change the formula to better account for the challenges of rural districts but chose not to.

“They chose to take the easy route and simply fund something already in existence knowing full well over 300 districts out there won’t be served by this proposal,” Little said, adding that he was conflicted because he knew the value of getting foundation aid funded for districts statewide.

Most education advocates across the state on Wednesday continued to applaud the state budget. Longtime Schenectady activists celebrated the full foundation aid commitment, something they have been fighting for the past decade. Schenectady is shorted about $40 million a year, under the formula, and is set to see its foundation aid rise by over $10 million next school year.

The final budget boosts overall state aid by about $3 billion: $1.4 billion to increase foundation aid; around $1 billion to backfill a so-called “pandemic adjustment” that cut state aid to school districts under the current year’s budget; about $200 million in expanded pre-kindergarten programs, and; hundreds of millions to cover reimbursement-based funding to districts. The plan also stripped numerous provisions proposed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and strongly resisted by the education community.

All of that state aid also comes with a separate check from the federal government, extra aid totaling $14 billion across the state, money that districts will be able to spend on certain expenses over the next few school years.

Brian Cechnicki, executive director of the state Association of School Business Officials, on Tuesday said the state funding levels represent the largest dollar increase in state education funding in a single year and is likely one of the top percentage increases in history. He said the foundation aid commitment marks a significant achievement, while also acknowledging the underlying formula may still need to be altered in the coming years. He also said it was inevitable that some districts would see a major boost in funding at some point during the three-year move toward fully funding, because those districts had received smaller increases during slimmer budget years when aid was focused in high-need districts. He also pointed out that the minimum increases for districts this year were still greater than in past years.

“Across the spectrum, school districts, advocates, all of us out in the field have agreed for many years that a full phase-in of foundation aid is the primary goal, and we have all been working on that, and this budget reflects a great success on that,” he said.

Cechnicki said there will likely be continued efforts to get parts of the formula changed in the coming years, including reclassifying the need categories of rural districts that have seen their poverty levels rise. He also pointed to other policies and investments that bolster rural education. He said programs like BOCES that enable districts to work collaboratively or share positions help rural districts expand offerings to students at a manageable cost.

“There will still be advocacy about making tweaks to the formula moving forward, because there are some challenges districts face that the formula doesn’t account for,” Cechnicki said. “Overall, this is a pretty good budget.”

CORRECTION: An article and chart in the April 8, 2021 edition of the paper about state education funding misstated the funding increase the Saratoga Springs school district will receive under the state budget. The district is projected to receive a 3.8 % increase in foundation aid, rising from $22,591,411 to $23,456,816. The previous article used the wrong base aid level, showing a much larger increase.

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