Schenectady’s state senator may not be convinced, but its two new assemblymen are going to fight for increased state aid for the city schools.
Schenectady receives about half the aid it needs under a formula decided through a court settlement involving all the districts in the state. Most of the state’s 600 districts receive more than 80 percent of what the court ruled they need, but Schenectady is among 22 districts getting half or less.
Of the districts receiving that little aid, Schenectady is one of the poorest and neediest. Only about half of the elementary students here can read on grade-level, and some of the extra-help reading teachers have been cut in recent years to balance the district’s budget.
The city’s new representatives in the Assembly — who won election last month and have not yet taken office — said the disparity proves that the state needs a new formula for school aid.
Assemblyman-elect Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam, said, “I think it has become clear that the present state education aid formula does not do enough to help high-need, low-wealth districts such as Schenectady and Montgomery County schools.”
Assemblyman-elect Phil Steck, D-Colonie, added that he hopes to get other legislators onboard to help fight for change.
“I think there’s opportunity for coalition, because Albany is on the list too [for being vastly underfunded in state aid],” he said.
Schenectady Superintendent of Schools Laurence Spring crunched the state aid numbers as soon as he was hired here and said he was appalled and shocked to discover the state aid disparity. He had assumed all districts were funded at roughly equal levels, although he knew they were all funded well below the court-mandated amount.
But when he reached out to Sen. Hugh Farley, R-Niskayuna, to change the state aid formula, he didn’t get much encouragement.
Farley told The Daily Gazette he was more concerned by the financial straits of small rural school districts. He said Schenectady officials are only trying to get more state aid so they can lower property taxes, not add more reading teachers.
The city’s assemblymen disagree.
Steck said he believes Spring wants to use the money to improve education.
“I think he’s got a very strong argument and I think it should be pursued,” Steck said. “I think the superintendent is correct and we certainly intend to support Schenectady — and all the school districts in my Assembly district — because they’re all not doing well.”
Santabarbara said it’s not fair to give Schenectady half as much aid as the court settlement ruled was needed to educate its children.
“Every child deserves the tools and resources they need to succeed,” he said. “Also, we must begin to address the inequities so that every child gets a quality education without overburdening local property taxpayers.”
Steck said he was surprised to learn that even the Colonie school districts were getting less than what the court settlement determined they needed.
“I think what the data shows is all the districts in the Assembly district I represent are being shortchanged. Now, Schenectady is the worst, for sure,” he said.
But Steck warned that the fight is just beginning.
“I think we need to be realistic. First of all, I’m a freshman assemblyman,” he said. “I’m not going to be able to right this wrong individually.”
But, he said, he would raise awareness this year and “hopefully get some progress” in the 2013 state budget, suggesting the effort will be a multi-year process.