Gov. Cuomo’s State of the State address dealt another blow to the city of Schenectady and its struggling school district. It wasn’t what he said that hurt the most, but what he didn’t say and chose to ignore.
On Jan. 9, New Yorkers listened to a sterling speech about economic development, public safety and progressivism, all of which are of great importance to the state and its future.
But Cuomo fell far short of the expectations of many when it came to his discussion of education.
Improving the quality of education was his main focal point, but there wasn’t much mention of equality outside of his plan to help distressed communities by partnering with school districts to develop community schools that offer better and more cost-effective services to students and families. Admittedly it is a promising idea, but not promising enough.
It has been made abundantly clear by Superintendent Laurence Spring that the Schenectady City School District received less than 55 percent in court-ordered state educational aid last year. The 2.1 percent increase in funding that the school district received for the 2012-2013 school year pales in comparison to what it actually should have been. The timing couldn’t have been much worse, as revenue continues to be a substantial problem for the city.
Year after year, Schenectady looks for new cost-cutting measures and alternative sources of revenue in order to fund its budget without calling for higher tax levies. But year after year, taxes go up in the city.
Perhaps a valid argument can be made that the city’s annual school budget remains bloated with unnecessary expenses, but it is superseded by the state’s unwillingness to properly and responsibly aid Schenectady in full. Keep in mind that while the recession is over for Wall Street, corporations and the upper-income demographic, it is not over for Schenectady and many of its residents.
In fact, Mr. Spring recently discovered that school districts in New York with higher rates of minority students disproportionately receive a lesser percentage of state aid than school districts with higher rates of white students.
Last year’s state budget attempted to bridge the economic gap by providing an additional $480.80 in state aid per pupil to low-wealth districts, which included Schenectady. Kudos to the state Legislature for taking equitable action, but it wasn’t, and will continue not to be, enough.
Conversely, Schenectady is receiving nearly triple the amount of dollars per pupil in state aid as compared to the Niskayuna Central School District, which spurs the argument that the school district receives more than enough aid. But as Mr. Spring has pointed out, the comparison of the two school districts is not apples to apples.
Schenectady oversees 20 schools and nearly 10,000 students, while Niskayuna is roughly half the size, with half the budget, and a much lower poverty, unemployment, crime and minority rate.
Furthermore, Niskayuna doesn’t have the tax collection and foreclosure problem that Schenectady has.
You simply cannot compare a well-off suburban town with a densely impoverished and indebted city. Yet, you also cannot assume that more state aid will improve the quality of education in Schenectady.
The cost of education rises annually. From salaries to benefits, to utilities, to supplies, inflation continues to grow at a steady rate with no end in sight. For “low-wealth” districts like Schenectady, inflation hurts the most and causes great distress to the city’s finances.
Academics and scholars can debate all they want about how to improve the quality of education, but the real issue in Schenectady is its diminishing revenue stream. More than anything else, Schenectady needs the additional state aid it deserves so as to take the burden off taxpayers.
If you really want the quality of education to improve in Schenectady, taxpayers need to be given a break. Higher taxes not only take more money away from the needy, but have a psychological impact on families and the communities they live in. It can prove very difficult for a parent to focus on their child’s education when they can barely afford to pay for necessities.
Poverty is the No. 1 cause of educational disparity. It is not poor teaching or a bad curriculum. Both of those things contribute to low test scores and graduation rates, but the real culprit is the discouraging socioeconomic conditions of families, which in turn disenfranchise students.
So before Schenectady can improve the quality of education for its students, it first needs to improve the quality of life for its residents. This is deeper, much deeper, than just the lack of school aid.
There must a socioeconomic and cultural shift for real change to occur.
You can’t always throw money at a problem, but in this case, more money can improve conditions for many Schenectady families. It can make it easier on their wallets and their consciences.
I ask all Schenectadians to reach out to their state assemblyman and senator. Reach out to Gov. Cuomo. Let them know that they are shortchanging us. Let them know that this is bigger than just the school district. This is about our livelihood. This is about the future of our children. We need more help and we need it now.
Robert Caracciolo lives in Schenectady and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.