New York state schools continue to outpace every other state in per-pupil spending, and Capital Region districts are following suit.
School districts in New York spent on average $22,366 per student in 2016, the most of any state in the country, according to U.S. Census Bureau data released last week. And the state’s education spending – nearly double the national average of $11,392 per student – is climbing faster than all but a handful of other states.
Per-pupil spending in 36 Capital Region school districts has grown an average of 23 percent since the 2012-13 school year, according to data culled from annual school district property tax report cards. (The spending outlined in those reports does not include federal grants and school lunch spending, which is included in the 2016 census figures.)
Together, those 36 districts are set to spend an average of $22,622 per student next school year, up from $21,750 this year and up from $18,486 in the 2012-13 school year. The per-pupil spending numbers would be even higher, if they included the federal grant and lunch program spending. Per-pupil spending in local districts ranges from a low of $17,681 in Shenendehowa, one of the region’s largest districts with around 10,000 students, to a high of $33,276 in Sharon Springs, a rural Fulton County district of fewer than 300 students.
Small, rural districts generally spend the most per student, as public schools are required to provide certain services and classes no matter how few students benefit. Transportation, special education and employee health insurance costs may also be a greater strain on smaller districts, where a small number of high-cost employees or students can have an outsize budget impact.
Middleburgh, a rural Schoharie County district, for example, plans to spend nearly $31,000 per student next year. Fort Plain, Galway, Schoharie and Schalmont school districts have all budgeted more than $26,000 per student.
Schenectady schools are set to spend $19,424 per student for the coming school year, less than the regional average.
“The real depressing irony in this is the $30,000-per-child education [in rural districts] is inferior to the education that is provided elsewhere,” said David Little, executive director of the state Rural Schools Association. “Despite higher graduation rates in small districts, their diploma is worth less to employees because they haven’t had an education to compete with urban and suburban districts.”
Little said the state needs to do more to shift funding resources to rural districts and ease the creation of regional high schools, which would let districts maintain primary schools but send high school students to schools that draw from multiple districts. The districts could be regional and replace other high schools or offer specialized curriculum not available in local districts.
Little also rejected the idea of pushing more rural districts to merge into joint districts. He said mergers over recent decades have not resulted in savings or academic improvements. When two small districts that covered a large area merge into a single district, the new district must shoulder the costs of transporting kids across an even larger area, he said.
“The biggest impediment for bringing down finances is geography,” Little said of rural districts.
The Empire Center, an Albany-based think tank that analyzes local and state government policy, highlighted the new census data and the fact that New York spends 90 percent more on education than the national average.
Ken Girardin, an analyst with the Empire Center said New York’s high spending centers on personnel costs, which he said are harder to rein in in New York than elsewhere, thanks to an oft-cited part of state labor law that keeps expired union contracts in place until new contracts are negotiated -- known as the Triborough Amendment.
“School districts have a very hard time making any changes whatsoever for how they are educating kids because the Triborough amendment has weakened their hand,” Girardin said. “School districts across the country have unique challenges, but taken at the state level, our state policies have made New York an outlier.”
The biggest annual cost drivers in education -- employee pay and benefits -- are largely locked in by contracts with bargaining units or set by state agencies -- in the case of annual contributions to state retirement systems. Some districts this budget season faced worse-than-expected budgets, after they were hit with large health insurance cost increases.
Since 2004, the cost of school district employee benefits in the region -- primarily health insurance and pensions -- has grown by around 90 percent, swallowing larger and larger chunks of school districts' budgets. As the benefits costs have come to represent larger slices of school spending, instructional spending has shrunk, a Daily Gazette analysis in February showed.
In six Capital Region counties — Albany, Schenectady, Saratoga, Montgomery, Fulton and Schoharie — the combined cost of paying for health and pension benefits for school employees has grown from just over $300 million in the 2004-05 school year to more than $575 million this year — a 90 percent increase — according to the analysis of more than 40 school district budgets since 2004.
In its analysis of the Census data, the Empire Center highlights a handful of trends in how New York stacks up to the rest of the country: school spending in New York grew by 5.5 percent in 2016, compared with 3.2 percent nationally; the state’s instructional salaries and benefit costs per student, $15,740, is more than double the national average of $7,160; New York’s spending on just instructional salaries and benefits would be high enough to rank it seventh in the nation for overall spending.
“State lawmakers and the governor have been binging on school aid because it’s more politically popular to spend more money than to change policies to make sure that money is going further,” Girardin said.
|District Name||18/19 Per Pupil General Fund Budget|
|BURNT HILLS-BALLSTON LAKE||$21,990|
|SOUTH GLENS FALLS||$18,285|