The new superintendent of Schenectady schools isn’t pulling his punches.
Laurence Spring is leading a charge against the governor and the state Legislature, demanding changes in the state aid formula that he claims has funded schools unequally.
This war has already been fought. New York City parents went to court to force the state to distribute state aid more fairly, arguing that wealthy districts receive far more aid than they need, while high-needs schools languish.
The state agreed to a settlement in 2007, but officials have said since then that they cannot afford to fully fund school districts according to that settlement. That left Schenectady with $62 million per year less than it should receive, according to Spring’s calculations.
Many other schools were also left with little of the promised funds — Schenectady is among 24 districts getting less than 55 percent of their agreed-upon aid, Spring said. But he said that of those districts, Schenectady is one of the poorest and least able to pay for its schools.
“It’s an abomination,” Spring said. “This is not just.”
The current budget for the Schenectady City School District is $153.6 million. The total of all forms of state aid is $87.5 million.
He noted that childhood poverty is extraordinarily high in Schenectady. Of four surveys collected by the American Community Survey in the past two years, three estimate a childhood poverty rate of 36 percent to 39 percent. The other survey — the most recent of the four but the one with the smallest sample group — estimated Schenectady’s childhood poverty at a whopping 50 percent.
“One might have a very strong argument that Schenectady is one of the districts that should be funded at 100 percent,” Spring said. “Every single year we are shorted $62 million that the court has determined we need to provide a sound, basic education.”
He blamed the state Legislature and Gov. Andrew Cuomo for the situation, saying the current state aid formula was a “delicate compromise” that came after “much horse trading.”
“Much pressure is required to change the equation,” he said.
And he vowed to begin putting that pressure on legislators.
“For legislators who are willing to do this to the poorest kids, I think we need to bring shame upon them and ask them how they can sleep at night,” he said.
State Sen. Hugh Farley, R-Niskayuna, said it’s not his fault.
“I have made the Schenectady City School District one of my top priorities, constantly,” he said.
Farley sits on the Education Committee in the Senate and agreed the state aid formula is unfair.
“The inequity in these school districts is awful, there’s no question about it,” he said. “In the last distribution, rural upstate school districts have been absolutely, in my judgment, really poorly funded.”
But he said the state is in a difficult fiscal situation, particularly with the work that must be done to repair schools damaged by Hurricane Sandy. And he said changing the formula would be very difficult.
“Every time you tinker with the formula — and that’s what he wants — huge leaks spring out and somebody gets gored,” Farley said. “That’s why so often they raise everybody up so nobody gets hurt.”
Changing the inequities instead would be a difficult task.
“That’s going to take a major push of the state Education Department,” Farley said.
But Education Department officials said they’ve been pushing for it for years. The Board of Regents has submitted annual state aid proposals calling for a change.
“Year after year, the regents’ proposal seeks a more equitable funding system, proposing that schools with the greatest financial and education needs receive a greater share of the funding,” spokesman Jonathan Burman said.
This year’s draft proposal says changing the aid formula is “imperative.” The draft urges the Legislature to prioritize its funding, giving more to the poorest schools with the neediest students.
But Farley said it would be better for the state to cut mandates and thus save the districts money.
“Because that saves us sending money,” he said.
Farley said he wants Spring to send him a list of expensive and unnecessary mandates, so he can lobby to remove those requirements.
“I’ll do everything I can to help,” he said.
Schenectady school board members aren’t relying on Farley alone. Since Cuomo is developing his budget now, they plan to lobby immediately, in hopes of influencing his proposals. Board members Ann Reilly and John Foley want parents to help lobby the government, on the theory that they will be taken more seriously than teachers or board members.
“People are being told the teachers are just doing this to get more jobs,” Foley said. “I think the most important voice in this will be the community.”
But there’s a downside to organizing the community. Some residents want the district to have the money to vastly enhance programs — Spring, for example, wants enough money to provide mental health services to students in kindergarten through grade 3 so they are “ready to learn,” but other residents want more state aid so their taxes will go down.
Board member Andrew Chestnut said that must be considered during the lobbying. School officials can’t simply argue that the money will be used to make the schools better.
“There’s a lot of people in the community having a great deal of difficulty paying their taxes,” he said. “To have $62 million come in and not affect the tax rate at all and people continue to have their backs broken ... this is a complicated issue.”