School districts are the “walking wounded” and there’s not much more they can cut and still provide a basic education, according to a education finance expert.
“These kids are already getting less,” said Rick Timbs, executive director of the Statewide School Finance Consortium, at a forum titled “Your Public Schools in Fiscal Peril — Running out of Time and Options.” About 1,400 people representing 49 school districts attended the forum at Columbia High School; the BOCES superintendents from the Capital Region and Queensbury areas sponsor the talks.
So many people attended that the start of the forum was delayed by 15 minutes as traffic was backed up to Interstate 90.
Timbs, a retired district superintendent of the Erie 2-Chautauqua-Cattaraugus BOCES in Western New York, said that school districts have hurt themselves by gutting programs.
Inequitable distribution of state aid is a problem, according to Timbs. State officials use something called the combined wealth ratio to evaluate a community’s ability to pay. This measure combines the average income in a community plus the average market value of the property.
Most of the school districts in the Capital Region are average or below average, according to Timbs. The highest combined wealth ratio for a district is 45, meaning 45 times the average wealth.
“And they get state aid. I guess it’s based on need, Huh?” he said. “I really feel sorry for you paying $20,000 in school taxes living in that $2 million house.”
The current formula doesn’t make sense, he said. He found that half of the districts that were getting more aid than they should had above average wealth.
By cutting aid, the state is just passing the tax increase down to the local level, according to Timbs. School officials have laid off staff, cut programs and tapped surplus funds to try to survive.
Using an example of the principle of equity, he said he had asked his granddaughter to distribute $4 to four imaginary people. She gave $1 to each person. Then, she found out that one was a homeless veteran, one’s house just burned down, another had lost his job in the Great Recession and the fourth was Justin Bieber.
Obviously, the pop star didn’t need as much as the others.
“A fourth-grade student understands the concept of equity,” he said. “I don’t want to be treated like everybody else. I want to be treated fairly.”
Continuing the example, his daughter gave the first three men more money and Bieber a penny. However, the three men still didn’t have enough to buy a Happy Meal at McDonald’s. “My fourth-grader understands the concept of sufficiency,” he said.
“If we can just get the entire state to embrace these concepts, then we’re on to something,” he said.
Schenectady City School District Superintendent Laurence Spring reiterated his argument that his district has intense mental health needs and is only getting 54 percent of the aid it is due under the original funding formula.
If it got 82 percent, that would be an additional $38 million.
“For $38 million, I think we could provide enough mental health services for our youngest children that they could walk into school, ready to learn, every day,” he said. “But wait, there’s more. I think that we could intervene with intensity at the intermediate level and make sure that every one of our kids enters ninth grade ready to earn credits,” he said.
He could do all those things and still lower the tax rate by one third.
Guilderland Central School District Superintendent Marie Wiles said her district’s wealth ratio is about 1, so it is not wealthy.
“From the outside looking in, it might appear that suburban schools have endless resources, but our resources are just as finite as our colleagues in rural and urban school districts,” she said. “Our financial and educational insolvency is not a matter of if, but when.”
Schodack Central School District Superintendent Bob Horan said the quality of education that students are receiving in the state is in peril.
The next educational forum will take place on Feb. 11 at 7 p.m. at Niskayuna High School. People will have a chance to learn how to lobby the state.
Timbs said the state should reinstate the aid that was promised under the Campaign for Fiscal Equity settlement. First the state didn’t give out the full amount and then it started cutting as revenues dried up. “We’re told we get a state aid increase. All you did was decrease the decrease.”
He said the state would have to come up with $5.22 billion to make up for what it has shortchanged districts in previous year and $2.2 billion in the current year.
At the current rate, districts will receive their full foundation aid in 50 years, according to Timbs.
Timbs added the tax cap is not the problem. “The tax cap would not be a problem if we had been funded all along.”
His other suggestions are to make it easier to remove ineffective teachers, increase insurance contributions and co-pays and relieve some special education requirements that go beyond what the federal government requires.