Schenectady school officials plan to use their upcoming budget process to plan for a scenario Superintendent Larry Spring concedes is unlikely this year: fully funded foundation aid.
If the state funded schools at the level spelled out in its own school-funding formula, Schenectady schools would get around $135 million in state aid. But Schenectady was nearly $50 million short of that last year.
Spring has been one of the most vocal superintendents in pushing for increased foundation aid, arguing the state’s funding hurts low-income and heavily-minority districts the most, but Schenectady district officials have yet to list specifically how they would spend that money.
This budget cycle, however, Spring intends to put his money where his mouth is — at least, the district’s plans for spending the money. As the school board and district officials work through the 2016-2017 budget, they plan to map out the programs they would spend their full foundation amount on and then prioritize from that list based on the actual aid level that state lawmakers work out in the spring.
“I don’t want us to be in a place where we are thinking about how to spend that money in any single year,” Spring said, admitting the district was not prepared for the increase it received last year — nearly $10 million more in foundation aid than the year before. “Last year we got caught a little ill-prepared; we got more money in state aid than we had anticipated.”
The district is also looking to increase its engagement with student families and residents. Later in the winter, they will host community work sessions, where parents and community members will be invited to share their priorities for future spending. The process mirrors how the district approached budget shortfalls in the years following the Great Recession.
Then, they were figuring out how to cut millions of dollars. Now, they will be planning how to spend tens of millions of dollars.
“It should be a more optimistic conversation,” said Jamaica Miles, a district parent and local education activist, who criticized the district during last year’s budget process for not seeking out enough community input.
Miles said the voices of parents and teachers are particularly important, because they understand the needs of students — and the barriers to their success — better than anyone.
There has been some momentum recently in the fight to increase foundation aid spending. Many lawmakers have said that eliminating the GEA last year — cuts that came about during the recession — allow them to now turn their attention to the foundation aid formula.
Earlier this month, the Board of Regents approved a budget recommendation to increase foundation aid by over $1 billion statewide and to phase-in the over $4 billion in outstanding foundation aid over three years.
The foundation aid formula was approved by the Legislature 10 years ago and was expected to be fully funded in four years. That plan was derailed by the recession.
“We do not accept that it’s going to take another 10 years four our schools to be funded, so we should be planning for how we will be implementing those funds to best suit Schenectady’s school children,” Miles said.
While Schenectady has not spelled out specific programs that would be in line for a boost under full funding, there are some clues. Spring has said that increased funding would be focused on literacy programs, mental and social health supports and internship and mentorship opportunities.
He has also said that the district could cut local property taxes by as much as a third if it received its full foundation aid, emphasizing the potential economic benefits for Schenectady as a whole. But the longer it takes to phase-in the foundation aid, Spring said, the more of that one-third tax cut will be eaten up by the district’s annual cost increases.
If the district’s state aid was boosted by $18 million this year, for example, Spring said the district could likely reduce its tax levy by as much as $5.5 million. Last year, the school board approved a marginal tax reduction of a quarter of a percent.
“The larger the foundation aid increase in any given year, the greater the reduction in property taxes will be for that given year,” Spring said.
But finding ways to spend increased funding has its own challenges — namely a shortage of people qualified for and interested in particular jobs. The district has found it difficult to fill some of its newly created positions in this year’s budget — like a struggling-schools coordinator and high school reading specialists. Spring said they have a difficult time finding instructors for English language learners and other specialized positions.