Schenectady schools Superintendent Laurence Spring finished his second complaint about school funding Friday, this time looking for help from the U.S. Department of Justice.
He hopes to meet in person with an official from the department in the next two weeks, he said.
“I definitely want to have a conversation with somebody. I don’t want to just mail it,” he said. “I want to talk with someone and explain the nature of the complaint.”
The complaint alleges that the process by which New York distributes school aid is racially discriminatory.
After a years-long court battle with activists who maintained the state was under-funding education, the state settled with the activists and created a formula to use impartially with every district, taking into account how much money the residents could afford to pay and how difficult it would be to educate their children. But that formula was never fully funded, and very few districts get all the aid that the formula calls for them to receive.
The problem is that schools do not all get the same percentage of their aid.
By Spring’s calculations, districts with mostly white students get a far higher percentage of their aid than districts with mostly non-white students.
He is not alleging intentional discrimination, but says the process allows influential politicians to bring more aid to their districts. Poor, non-white districts tend to get less attention from the most powerful politicians, he said.
Spring tried to persuade the governor’s staff and local legislators to change the system, to no avail. Then he went to the U.S. Office of Civil Rights, which recently decided it would not look into the case.
Now he’s hoping to talk to a decision-maker at the Department of Justice — someone who has the authority to open the complaint and launch an investigation.
Recent action by the department has given him hope that officials will take the complaint.
“The Department of Justice came out with some pretty significant reports on disproportionality with race and school districts,” he said. “So hopefully they’re used to these data sets. They are not a shock to their conscience.”
But if the department does start an investigation, action could be years away.
The department would press for a mediated settlement first, Spring said. If that doesn’t work, the department would investigate and come to a determination, after which the school district and the state would be asked to “develop their own plan to make this right,” he said.
It can be a long process.
“It really could be several years before the manner in which [state officials] implement foundation aid changes,” Spring said.
But he added that there is a faster way.
“The Legislature could collectively decide it’s morally reprehensible and change it,” he said.
He thinks public outcry about the situation is already having some impact. This year, for the first time in several years, the state budget increased the percentage of aid given to each district, according to the formula. Schenectady also got additional one-time funds.
“That gave us hope to believe this pressure is working,” he said. “I think those are some good signs.”
But it wasn’t much, he added.
“We went from 54 percent [of aid] all the way up to 55 percent,” he said. “We’re still in a pretty big hole.”
The school district gets $62 million less per year than what the state aid formula calls for, an amount so large that Spring said people don’t believe it’s true.
“It’s fantastical,” he said. “It’s very difficult for anyone to conceive it could be possible for any school district to be shorted that much and still be open.”
Part of the reason for the high figure is that Schenectady has more than 10,000 students, many of whom live in poverty, and is considered a very poor city. Children who live in poverty are considered more expensive to educate because teachers must make up for shortfalls at home, from a lack of good preschool education to the need for counseling to deal with misbehavior from trauma.
All that adds up in the formula.
Of all the school districts in the Capital Region, Schenectady receives the lowest percentage of its aid. Schenectady gets 55 percent of what it should receive, according to the formula. By comparison, neighboring Niskayuna receives 66 percent.