A new school-level budget reporting requirement included in the state budget passed over the weekend will affect seven area districts this year and all districts statewide by the 2020-21 school year.
The requirement, similar to a new federal requirement also taking effect soon, will mandate that districts report per-pupil funding levels at individual school buildings, as well an explanation of how funding is allocated among schools within a district. Those details will be provided to state officials and the public.
The requirement takes hold for around 75 school districts in the coming school year – including Schenectady, Amsterdam, Broadalbin-Perth, Cobleskill-Richmondville, Gloversville, Johnstown and Troy, according to a list compiled by the New York State School Boards Association. It kicks in for all districts by fall 2020.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo originally proposed a more narrow policy that would have applied to far fewer districts, Schenectady among them, and would have given state officials the authority to reject a school district's proposed budget. He defended the broader policy that ultimately passed and said as long as districts provided the required information, their state aid would not be withheld.
He also argued the state's education funding problems are less a function of overall funding -- New York spends more on education than any other state -- and more the result of how those funds are allocated by school districts, allocations he said are poorly understood by voters.
"The real issue in education is not the total amount of funding from the state," Cuomo said during a budget press conference Friday night. "The real issue is the distribution of that money ... And how do (districts) distribute the money? School by school? Nobody knows. How could that be? Nobody knows. It's up to the local school district."
While groups that represent district officials and school boards have said the mandate is a burdensome new financial requirement on top of many others, proponents argue it will provide more transparency into how districts are distributing their funds and whether they are focusing resources on the neediest schools.
By analyzing school-level budget and spending figures, the governor and supporters of the new law say, disparities among schools within a given district will become more apparent and force conversations about how resources are allocated.
“We see it is an opportunity to improve transparency and ensure that parents and community members and policymakers have critical information they can use to advance equity,” said Ian Rosenblum, executive director of Education Trust-New York, a group that advocates for more equitable education opportunities.
Rosenblum said the state mandate will complement a new federal rule – part of the Every Student Succeeds Act – that requires districts to report school-level spending levels. The state requirement will apply to planned budget allocations by school, while the federal rule covers actual spending. The federal requirement will take effect for the 2018-19 school year, but districts won’t report those figures until the end of 2019 or later.
Groups representing the state's school boards and superintendents were more troubled by the new requirement, arguing it is burdensome, duplicative of the federal requirement and edges into authority that should be reserved for school boards. The groups said they were particularly concerned by language that allows the state Education Department and Division of the Budget to withhold state aid increases from districts that don't properly complete the new reporting requirement.
David Albert, spokesman for the New York State School Boards Association, said that while the new mandate is an improvement over the proposal that gave state officials explicit authority to reject district budgets, the mandate is still worrisome for districts.
"We don't really feel it's the responsibility of the state to review or approve or have the ability to reject how districts allocate funds," said Albert, who said it's still unclear how the new reporting requirement will play out with state officials. "These are locally-elected officials who are authorizing these expenditures. It's not an appointed administrator or superintendent, it's a group of individuals -- a board of education, elected by their communities to do this very thing: budget for schools."
Bob Lowry, of the State Council of School Superintendents, said the federal requirement should be enough to show funding disparities within districts. He also pointed out the many financial reporting requirements for school districts, calling the state policy “one more paperwork requirement.”
“The (federal) ESSA reporting will be illuminating and bring to light whether there are disparities in expenditures, and that will provoke a discussion,” Lowry said.
Lowry also said that apparent funding disparities may have reasonable explanations. In some districts, for example, an expensive special education program may be housed at one school and not others, though it may serve students across the district; schools with more experienced teachers or fewer sections per grade level may also stand out as having higher per-pupil spending than other schools in a district. Lowry said district officials will need to be prepared to explain these differences as the new data begin to emerge.
"Not every disparity will be an inequity," he said.