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Schools team with chamber on funding pitch

Schools team with chamber on funding pitch

Capital Region schools and allies seek more state funds

In March 2015, Proctors CEO Philip Morris came across a study that ranked racial and ethnic inequities in America’s 100 largest metro areas.

Researchers at Brandeis University and Ohio State University created a “Child Opportunity Index,” which used a bevy of educational, health and socioeconomic indicators – like presence of early childhood programs, foreclosure rates, proximity to parks and hospitals and more – to measure how conducive a community was to healthy childhood development.

What Morris saw was frightening but, perhaps, not surprising.

In the Capital Region, more than 60 percent of black children live in the region’s lowest opportunity neighborhoods, according to the study. That put the region at the top of the list for the worst metro areas for black children.

Morris immediately forwarded the study to friends and colleagues at the Capital Region Chamber of Commerce.
“My email was titled: Is it time to scream?” Morris said.

That email and the study started Morris and the chamber down a road that has resulted in a new collaboration among the region’s the school districts of three cities: Schenectady, Albany and Troy. The superintendents from those cities' districts meet regularly and are exploring potential partnerships. But one idea has become a novel request, and a way to rethink superintendents’ perennial trips to the Capitol with hats in hand.

The districts' leaders and their partners at the chamber have proposed using the three urban districts as a “pilot” to test a $20 billion question: What would happen if the state funded school districts at the level spelled out in the state's own funding formula?

Ever since that formula – called the foundation aid formula – was established 10 years ago, the state has come up billions short of fully funding it. The original plan to phase in the full amount over four years was derailed by the Great Recession, and only now have policymakers started talking about meeting that goal in coming years.

Last year, the Capital Region’s three urban districts received a total of $88 million less in foundation aid than was called for in the state's formula.
Statewide, the formula is underfunded by more than $4 billion.

Schenectady schools received less than 64 percent of the more than $135 million the funding formula calculates for the district; Albany fell more than $32 million short of its $100.9 million aid formulation, and Troy was provided with nearly $7 million less than the $46.9 million the formula said that district should receive.

The pitch district leaders are making, with the help of the chamber and other business leaders, is an opportunity to learn what the impact would be if those districts were “fully funded” over three years.

“The one thing they have not tried is giving schools the resources the formula proscribes,” Schenectady Superintendent Larry Spring said of lawmakers and the governor. “Let’s give that one a try.”

Lower taxes = greater prosperity?

In most cities, school taxes make up the lion’s share of property taxes – sometimes as much as two-thirds of annual tax bills. Schools argue they have no choice but to overtax their residents until the
state comes through with more funding.

“One of the first things that (longtime state senator) Hugh Farley said to me was: ‘If you want the economic engine in Schenectady to work better, tax less,’” Spring said of a conversation he had when he started his position more than four years ago. “My response was, I can tax a whole lot less.”

But that promise to lower Schenectady’s school property taxes comes with a big “if.” The district can cut taxes, if the state boosts its annual state aid by tens of millions dollars. The key element of the Capital Region urban district leaders' “pilot” proposal -- the part of it that undergirds the broader economic development -- is that the districts would commit to lower taxes $1 for every $3 of increased state aid.

The commitment to reduce property taxes is part of a broader strategy to marry the education funding argument – with increasing resources to improve and expand programs within the schools at its core – with an argument for economic development.

Part of the strategy is to let local business leaders get in on the funding push that's usually left to school districts. After all, “every single one of us asks for more money,” Spring said of district superintendents.

By working with Capital Region Chamber of Commerce, the argument for increased school funding becomes an economic development argument as well -- one that Capital Regional Chamber CEO Mark Eagan is making directly to lawmakers.

He argues that, by funding the region’s urban districts at the higher level, those directs could lower taxes, which would both boost home values and make it more affordable for young families to take on home ownership. Schools can also be centers of neighborhood revitalization, he argues, working with other community organizations to offer a wider range of mental, health and social services to both students and their families. And if the schools are able offer students a better education, the region’s graduates will be better suited for filling the workforce demands of the region.

“There are workforce needs all over the region, but the three districts generating the most high school graduates aren’t generating kids that are workforce ready because they don’t have the means to do it,” Morris said.

Even if the coalition pushing the pilot proposal can’t get lawmakers on board, the exercise itself has helped sharpen the economic argument and strengthened the relationship of the three districts.

"We have so much more in common than we don’t,” Albany Superintendent Kimberly Wilkins said of the partnership. “It’s really smart to look at this as one metro area.”

Tough politics

The superintendents and chamber leaders started to make the case for the pilot funding proposal to lawmakers during the most recent legislative session, starting with local representatives. At first, they tried to get a lawmaker to introduce legislation to establish the pilot program but decided to take a different approach after meeting with lawmakers, Morris said.

Meanwhile, a broader push for increased foundation aid statewide has progressed. Activists played off of the 10-year anniversary of a court decision that laid the groundwork for the creation of the foundation aid formula in the first place. In the fall, some school funding advocates marched from cities across the state to Albany, waving “invoices” as they chanted outside the State Court of Appeals and marched a block to the Capitol.

More recently, the Board of Regents approved a budget request that calls for phasing-in the outstanding foundation aid over three years. But even as they passed that proposal, Regent Jim Tallon, who leads the board’s state aid committee, described the budget request as a place to start the “conversation.”

For his part, Spring acknowledged the pilot proposal is a tacit concession that he doesn’t think full funding statewide is likely to happen on that kind of timeline.

But the politics of getting lawmakers statewide to boost school funding for a specific region faster than the districts they represent are about as difficult as they come.

Assemblyman Phil Steck, D-Colonie, said he didn’t think the pilot proposal was the best political strategy for trying to increase school aid, pointing to lawmakers in other upstate small cities that shared a commitment to boosting foundation aid.
“I think, to suggest the Capital Region is more unique than Utica or Syracuse or Rochester, all of which are similar, I think that is a stretch, and I don’t see garnering support from (those lawmakers) for a special pilot project that benefits just the Capital Region,” Steck said.

Other local lawmakers praised the effort but wouldn’t commit directly about their support for legislation to form a pilot program for the Capital Region districts. Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam, said he was focused on the “big picture” of increasing education funding statewide.

“For me, my main concern is what’s being done for all of my schools,” said Santabarbara, citing school districts he represents across Montgomery County. “I have Schenectady, and I have Amsterdam too.”

Sen-elect Jim Tedisco, R-Glenville, was more unequivocal in his support, calling the idea “long overdue.”
“It’s not only a great idea, it’s the right approach. It represents strength in numbers,” he said. “We want to collectively work together, not only for more funding, but a formula change that recognizes these extra challenges and gives districts more autonomy."

Comments made by Tedisco, however, may well encapsulate the underlying political challenge facing the proposal’s proponents.

“I’m going to work to get the Capital Region where I live first of all,he said. “But I believe everyone deserves fair funding across the state.”

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