After allocating about $20 billion of education aid in the state budget, state legislators have a pot of almost $31 million left over to distribute as they see fit.
Designed as a tool to rectify inequities in the complicated funding formula for school districts, which is applied to a majority of the education spending, this remaining pool of money is part of the state’s “bullet aid.” The name implies that the grants are ideally used as an accurate way to target high-needs districts, with about a quarter of the expenditure specifically outlined in the budget and the rest left to be divvied up in the future.
In practice, these grants tend to only benefit needy school districts represented by majority party members of the state Senate and Assembly, with districts represented by minority party members unable to plead the case for their districts. This year’s bullet grants for the Legislature, which can also be given to public libraries and not-for-profit institutions, will include $20.6 million for the Senate Republicans and $9.1 million for the Assembly Democrats.
“It’s basically sent out by the leadership to particular districts,” said Assemblyman Bob Reilly, D-Colonie.
He argued that there is some merit to this system, because it allows for tweaks that are needed because of flaws in the education aid formula that he felt no one has ever been able to completely understand.
In his first few years in the Assembly, Reilly said he wasn’t even aware of this process and only discovered the grants when Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver let him know a school district he represented was receiving money. “And when we used to get it, I had never heard of bullet aid,” Reilly added.
He has already had one district approach him with a request from the new pot of money, although that doesn’t guarantee it will get included.
And while he has been lucky enough to receive it in the past, he noted that his colleagues in the minority are generally shut out of this partisan process. Reilly said, “It’s a political distribution and I don’t think that’s a good method.”
The Senate Democrats, who are in the minority, argued that this system is a failure because it ignores some needy districts because of politics. Spokesman Gary Ginsburg said in an email, “We have to make sure that all students across New York have access to a quality education, not just those who happen to be represented by Majority Senators.”
Assemblyman James Tedisco, R-Glenville, described the money as education member items. Member items, or pet projects funded at the whim of the majority party in either chamber, have been almost completely eliminated from the budget. “I’m surprised [Gov. Andrew Cuomo] let this bullet money slip through,” he added, noting that the governor recently made a big show of vetoing member items in the budget, although they only totaled less than $1 million.
He acknowledged that this money often goes to high-need districts, but said the process needs some form of objective review.
As far as the distribution plans for this year, it is not clear how districts will be chosen, with the Senate Republican press office and Assembly Education Committee Chairwoman Catherine Nolan, D-Queens, not responding to questions.
Assembly Way & Means Committee Chairman Denny Farrell, D-Manhattan, said a plan was still being put together. In the authorization of the bullet aid there is no language that lays out how the Assembly and state Senate should assign this portion of the budget.
The portion of the bullet aid that was included in the budget, about $11 million from the Assembly’s portion, did follow a specific formula, according to state Division of Budget. This money is divided up after the school aid is doled out, with an overwhelming majority of this money going to high-need districts. None of these districts was in the Capital Region.
Going forward, though, the remaining funds will be dispersed in a more transparent process, as the authorization of the money requires a majority vote in each chamber for the first time. In a statement, Budget Director Bob Megna said this process has constantly become more transparent and argued that this year’s distribution continued that trend.
He also noted that there are requirements for public disclosure of recipients. Generally these requirements aren’t needed, with most legislators anxious to tout their success in securing funds for districts they represent.
The DOB was able to produce a five-page list of districts that received bullet aid for the fiscal year that just ended in March, with the list signed off on by Megna in February. The list consists of $10 million in spending, which they said came from a $16 million sum controlled by the Senate. The rest of that money is reappropriated for the fiscal year that started this month, according to the DOB.
According to the DOB’s list for the completed fiscal year, at least seven of the grants went to districts represented by state Sen. Hugh Farley, R-Niskayuna. His district got $30,000 for the Duanesburg School District, $30,000 for the Galway School District, $30,000 for the Mohonasen School District, $150,000 for the Northville Central School District, $100,000 for the Mayfield Central School District, $40,000 for the Fonda-Fultonville Central School District and $30,000 for the Canajoharie Central School District. Some of the funds were announced in March and can be used by the schools for their fiscal years that end in June or for the upcoming one that begins in July.
Farley spokesman Peter Edman said these districts were targeted because they are facing budget difficulties.
Mayfield Central School District Superintendent Paul Williamsen said his district will be able to save some programs in their upcoming budget as a result of the surprise money.
Canajoharie Central School District Superintendent Deborah Grimshaw said they would be using their funds for technology infrastructure so it would directly impact teaching and learning. “I think that it is a wonderful opportunity to do some things that we wouldn’t have been able to do,” she said.
Grimshaw lamented the timing of this money, which she contended would be better used if districts were made aware of it earlier in the budget process.
Bullet aid for the current fiscal year almost certainly won’t be announced before districts vote on budgets in May, with the process of selecting districts not expected to start until May or June.
The list of school districts from the DOB that received Bullet Aid appropriated in the state budget passed in 2011 can be found on the Daily Gazette’s political blog Capital Region Scene at https://www.dailygazette.com/weblogs/capital-region-scene/.