A new bill in the Assembly would upend the state school aid formula, cutting off rich districts like Rye and giving much, much more to districts like Schenectady.
The city district would wind up with millions more than its entire current budget, Superintendent Laurence Spring said.
The bill is not likely to pass, said co-sponsor Assemblywoman Donna Lupardo, D-Endwell. But she and original sponsor Assemblywoman Addie Russell, D-Theresa, hope it will push the Legislature to make some significant changes to the state aid formula.
“I’m very pragmatic,” Lupardo said. “But I have to tell you, I sense in my colleagues a desperation.”
School districts in Lupardo’s region are on the verge of insolvency, she said, and are seriously discussing eliminating kindergarten. Other legislators’ rural and urban school districts are in similar straits.
It’s the right time to start the fight over the state aid formula, she said.
“We have to begin the conversation someplace,” she added. “I understand exactly what we’re up against. I’m not predicting grand success. I am predicting a lot of noise will be made about it.”
Russell is more optimistic. She’s trying to persuade fellow Democrats, as well as Republicans and independents, that they must do something now to stave off “crippling” cuts in poor school districts.
She said the coalition leadership in the Senate has created an opportunity to push for a change in the formula, and she’s persuaded Sen. Cecilia Tkaczyk to support it with a similar bill in the Senate.
Thaczyk’s aide confirmed that she is planning to sponsor a Senate version of the bill.
Russell has tried this before. This time, she said, the issue is even more urgent.
“We need to do something immediately,” she said. “We really have very few options. Either we add $1.8 billion in additional spending or we put in some other amount so we make the state aid formula more equitable. Either we spend money some say we don’t have or we redistribute.”
Her bill calls for a redistribution that greatly favors the poorest districts. The wealthiest would slowly be cut off, over the course of several years.
“We have to change the formula to send the aid to where it’s needed most,” she said. “I have school districts that are contemplating half-day kindergarten. Then you have other districts that have not made any real cuts at all.”
Cutting off aid to the wealthiest districts would face staunch opposition.
Although they are receiving more aid than the current formula says they need, some of those districts say they need more.
Rye school district Superintendent Frank Alvarez posted a message on his school website saying that the state has made it more difficult for him to create a budget.
He cited “the constraints of the tax cap and unfunded state mandates.”
It would be particularly difficult for those districts to replace state aid with taxes because the tax cap limits how much they can raise taxes each year. The bill would reduce their aid by 15 percent a year until they hit zero.
Russell said those districts have huge savings accounts they could use to make the transition.
“School districts have benefited from a twisted formula,” she said. “This will reverse the political deals that have driven aid to school districts that do not need it. If the formula had not been manipulated in the past, we wouldn’t be in this situation.”
But Russell’s formula might be too generous. In Schenectady, where the current budget is $156 million, the state would hand over $166 million a year in aid, Superintendent Laurence Spring said.
“My eyes popped out of my head a little bit,” he added.
The school board agreed to send out letters asking politicians to support the bill.
But one of Schenectady’s representatives, Assemblyman Phil Steck, D-Colonie, isn’t too excited by the bill.
Instead, he is working with the other three assemblymen who represent the Capital Region. They hope to develop a joint proposal of their own.
“We’re a much more effective voice working together,” Steck said. “We’ve been focused more on what’s likely to take effect in this budget. Addie Russell’s legislation is more likely to be in the future.”
And, he said, the legislators are torn because they represent struggling city schools and wealthy suburban schools.
“So we have to be fair to both in this thing,” he said. “But we certainly agree Schenectady’s been short-changed.”
He likes a compromise measure in which the governor’s additional state aid for schools would be split between foundation aid — which he said supports poor schools more than rich ones — and a reduction in the “gap elimination” aid. The gap elimination is an aid cut that disproportionately affects richer schools, he said. School aid has been cut through “gap elimination” to balance the yearly state budget.
Splitting the additional aid between those two items would help everybody, Steck said.
“We’re trying to affect Schenectady but also reverse some harm done to Niskayuna through gap elimination,” he said.