The state is listening to Schenectady’s woes.
Schenectady City School District Superintendent Laurence Spring took his case to the governor’s staff Monday, trying to persuade them to give the school district more money. They didn’t immediately agree to pony up more cash — but they did say they would release the $3.8 million in transportation aid that the Education Department withheld years ago, then said it would give back in 2012.
The aid was withheld after the district made a technical error in a legal ad. Getting that money back has been the focus of budget discussions for years, and would be a major victory for the school district.
Staffers also asked Spring to come back next week to discuss the state aid formula in detail with the top formula staffers.
“It didn’t seem like a blow-off,” Spring said.
The governor’s staff wants to discuss Spring’s allegation that the state aid formula unintentionally hurts minorities more than anyone else.
Many of the poorest school districts in the state get the smallest percentage of state aid in comparison to what they are supposed to receive in a court-ordered settlement. Those districts often also have a large number of minorities.
Spring said that disproportionate effect on minorities means the formula is unjust.
But he acknowledged that the formula wasn’t intended to hurt minorities and mainly hurts impoverished residents. It’s just the poorest students are often in districts that have a large number of minorities.
“We could agree, as a group of human beings, that discriminating against and withholding funds from people because of their income status is wrong,” Spring said. “However, that is not illegal. Being poor is not a protected class of citizenship. Your race is. That’s why I bring this up.”
He told the governor’s staff that they should change the formula.
“I would ask that you stand up and say this is wrong,” he said to them.
He was heartened that they wanted him to come back to discuss the matter with their experts.
“I feel really good about it. It’s dialogue,” he said. “It’s information and perspective they didn’t have before. It’s going to take them a little while to digest it.”
Officials from the governor’s office did not return calls seeking comment Tuesday. Spring said he doesn’t expect the meetings to lead to changes soon, even if he wins over the governor’s staff.
“I don’t think they can make those adjustments in a single year. Those adjustments are huge,” Spring said. “This is not something that’s going to be a couple of months.”
But he said he wants the state Legislature to add at least another $3 million to Schenectady’s state aid this year, on top of the transportation aid and the $3 million increase in the governor’s proposed budget.
That would eliminate Schenectady’s budget hole for 2013-2014, so Spring would not have to cut programs.
But he said he could not celebrate even if the Legislature adds $3 million to his district’s aid.
He called Schenectady’s current school resources a “ridiculously low level of programming.”
Celebrating the ability to keep that level would make him “a little nauseous,” he said.
“Just to maintain this level of service would be a ‘great’ thing?” he asked. “That is a paradigm that is just sad.”
Spring has also taken his case to state Sen. Hugh Farley, R-Niskayuna. Farley had previously said he’s more concerned about the plight of poor rural districts that can’t afford to offer art, language or college-prep courses.
Schenectady offers many advanced and specialized high school classes, but the district has had to cut reading specialists to work with the many students who cannot read in elementary school.
Spring also says the district needs more social workers to help the many troubled students.
Farley did not return a call seeking comment, but Spring said Farley asked him why Schenectady could not run its schools like Saratoga Springs, which has one of the lowest tax rates in Farley’s district.
Spring had a snappy answer.
“I pointed out Saratoga Springs has a combined wealth ratio of 1.3,” he said, noting that Schenectady’s is 0.386, making it much poorer.
“And Saratoga Springs received more than 100 percent of the state aid they are due. If we received 109 percent of the state aid we were due, I’m sure I could lower taxes as well.”