A budding coalition of clergy and community activists has a singular focus on a major undertaking: compel the state Legislature and governor to pony up over $60 million more in annual funding for Schenectady City schools.
The funding request is nothing new — Schenectady Superintendent Larry Spring, school board members and other advocates have long pushed for more funding — but the coalition leaders hope a broader community-based effort can succeed where education officials have not.
Around 60 people turned out for an organizing meeting last month, where the group listened to Spring detail the district’s finances, and brainstormed strategies and goals. The group is unofficially calling itself the Fight for Education in Schenectady.
WHAT: Fight for Education in Schenectady coalition planning meeting
WHERE: Emmanuel Friedens Church, 218 Nott Terrace
WHEN: Saturday at noon
Coalition members have already started circulating a form resolution for civic groups, businesses, religious congregations and governmental bodies to go on record in support of their goal, calling on lawmakers to “implement the full Foundation Aid formula for Schenectady this budget year.” They are also gathering petition signatures with a similar request, aiming to garner 50,000 total signatures.
The foundation aid formula was approved by the Legislature in 2007 and spells out funding levels needed to provide equitable education across the state and fulfill a court order to do so. The state remains over $4 billion short of meeting the foundation aid goal, including the $60 million in Schenectady — or about 45 percent of what the formula says Schenectady is owed.
“A lot of schools have a higher percentage of funding than Schenectady,” said Rev. Sara Baron, pastor of Schenectady First United Methodist Church. “We know that money and power have influence on how much money communities receive, and we are willing to be that squeaky wheel.”
While the coalition’s organizers have ambitious goals, they also recognize the complex politics they are stepping into. During each annual budget cycle, the specifics of the foundation aid formula are ditched in favor of political negotiations between the governor and Assembly and Senate leaders. The negotiators cobble together a plan for funding the hundreds of school districts across the state, leaving many districts — if not all — short of the funding they feel is owed to them.
However, to the coalition, the imperative of quality education is much more than a political riddle; it is a fundamental issue that touches on nearly all aspects of community life in Schenectady. It is a key to solving the issues of poverty and violence that plague the most underserved neighborhoods in the city. It is neighborhood revitalization. It is economic development.
During an interview Wednesday night, coalition leaders linked the school funding issue to gang violence, drugs, teen pregnancy and a general feeling among Schenectady youth that the schools aren’t meeting their needs. But they also tied it to high property taxes and the need to ease Schenectady’s tax burden to spur economic growth.
“It’s important to say we are not going to stop until we get this money,” said Deacon Bernardo Martinez of Bible Church of Christ. “There is just too much injustice that is going on.”
The new coalition is a piece of Spring’s effort to draw attention to what he sees as funding disparities that are especially harmful to low-income and minority-majority districts like Schenectady. Spring has filed a federal civil rights complaint arguing as much.
“When you present the facts, it doesn’t seem realistic; in fact it seems hyperbolic,” Spring said Thursday. “To say a single district is being shorted $62 million in aid every year that seems like a made up number.”
The lack of full funding, Spring said, makes the already difficult job of educators in Schenectady that much harder. He said if the state were to make progress toward meeting the foundation aid targets, one-third of the money would go to reducing schools taxes. For students, the district would boost mental health interventions in the early grades, academic interventions in the intermediate grades and increase mentoring and internship opportunities for the oldest students.
“It’s an idea whose time has come,” said Phil Grigsby, executive director of Schenectady Inner City Mission.
While state Sen. Hugh Farley, R-Niskayuna, on Thursday said improving Schenectady’s school funding was a top priority for him, he also pointed to other school districts in his senate district that face funding challenges. He said poverty persists in rural districts, where slipping enrollment leads to program cuts, and many suburban districts are still owed hundreds of thousands of dollars from funding cuts tied to deficit reduction plans during the economic downturn of the last decade.
“I get requests constantly for Gap Elimination [district funding cuts during the economic downturn] and for foundation aid,” Farley said. “I’m anxious to try and address both of them.”
He said given the more than $4 billion price tag, complete foundation aid funding this year wasn’t realistic but that it was something lawmakers should begin moving toward. And as foundation aid is boosted in the coming years, lawmakers should start with struggling districts like Schenectady, Farley added.
The coalition plans to hold another planning meeting at noon on Saturday at Emmanuel Friedens Church on Nott Terrace. The meeting is open to anyone interested in getting involved in the coalition or offering suggestions for how it can move forward.
The petition drive will kick into high gear next week. Petitions will be available at the visitor sign-in desk of every district school Wednesday through Friday. The organizers will hold an event Feb. 27 at the Schenectady County Central Library, and churches across the city will also be open for people to sign the petition.